29 June 2019
Anger is the main emotion in this film, followed by grief, remorse, guilt. Mildred Hayes has lost Angela, her 19-year-old daughter. She lost her to male lust, aggression, rape, murder. The rapist was never caught. Mildred seethes at those two haunting thoughts: murder and injustice. Closure isn’t possible within a broken circle. To be whole again justice must occur.
The police have done what they can in Ebbing, a small berg in Missouri in the American heartland. All leads have come to dead-ends. None of the DNA has matched up. The killer, whoever he was, is at large. Seven months have passed since the crime was committed, seven agonising months that feel like a lifetime. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says, but Mildred isn’t buying it. Wounds fester and worsen through time. Time deepens loss and pain.
The old highway outside town is abandoned now. The new freeway built a few years ago put paid to it. Nobody saunters down the highway anymore. Weeds grow tall along its verges. Three dilapidated wooden billboards still stand in a field along the highway. They once advertised things sellers wanted to sell. The messages were large, in your face, impossible to ignore as you drove past. But that was then when then was the 1980s. The world has moved on since and sales are now made in other ways, even via one clicks with a mouse. But the billboards remain, or just barely, so neglected and unimportant now that no one has bothered to chainsaw or burn them down.
One day Mildred is in her station wagon on the old highway. The billboards (three in succession) have caught her eye and she begins to slow down, finally coming to a halt on the highway. The car isn’t moving but the wheels in her head are. We watch them turn, see Mildred think. She has an idea and takes it back with her into town.
She’s upstairs in an office on Main Street in a building just across from the Ebbing Police Station. She talks to Red Welby. The billboards are owned by Red’s company. They’re still on the company books even though they haven’t brought in any revenue since 1986. Mildred is the first since then to want to use them. She isn’t selling anything. Instead she’s a buyer, and what she wants to buy is justice.
She hands Red four things: a stack of cash that totals 5,000 dollars and three slips of paper with questions written on them. Mildred wants answers to the questions, not more dead-ends, delays, police incompetence. She believes the priorities of the cops are all wrong — hassling blacks for the sake or fun of it, busting teens for dope, hauling in town drunks to dry out in jail cells at the station. Life goes on, as they say. They tried to catch Angela’s killer, but resources and manpower are thin. There’s only so much a small force can do. But Mildred won’t tolerate the excuses. She wants results. She’s demanding justice. Until it comes her soul and Angela’s will not rest. She’ll kill the killer herself if she ever gets her hands on him. When conventional justice fails the only two options left are acquiescence, meaning acceptance, or vigilante justice. Mildred Hayes is strong and resolute. She doesn’t do meek acceptance. She’s out for blood and can almost taste it in her mouth.
The last day of Angela’s life was not a good one for Mildred (or Angela). They quarrelled as they often did. Mama Protector tried to protect her wilful, spirited daughter. But Angela was having none of it, sick and tired of being treated like a child instead of an adult, or near-adult, a person with a will of her own. Defiance had become her main stance against her mother’s wishes and commands. They shouted at one another and Angela left the house in a huff. She would stay out late, get drunk, get home however and wherever since Mama wouldn’t lend her the car keys. Same old story, Angela wanting freedom, Mildred acting as warden or parole officer.
Angela thinks she’s an adult and wants to do adult things. But she’s not yet there emotionally. Her view is tinctured by teen fantasies and immaturity. She half understands adulthood, seeing the freedom but not the responsibilities in it. She could get into trouble, maybe has been in trouble before, so Mildred knows all about this.
Where is Angela’s father, a man who might bring some workable discipline to the table? He’s a drunk and wife beater who has run off with a 19-year-old bimbo. They’re shacking up together in Ebbing or some other Missouri town. So it looks like Papa wouldn’t have brought much discipline to the table anyway.
The problems of being a single mum are many. But maybe the biggest is the impossibility of being two parents in one, mother and father. It’s the reason marriage has two adults in it, one male, one female. Or conventionally it does. Such balance seems to work in raising kids, or can if the parenting team works from the same playbook. But being beaten by your drunken husband is not part of the playbook if you’re a woman and mother. Your parenting gets even harder when you’re black and blue and aching.
So Mildred and Angela argued. They fought. Angela said she’d walk home since Mama wouldn’t let her drive. Angela dared her out of spite, reminding Mildred of the danger (as if she didn’t know it already). “I might get raped,” she shouted at Mildred. She didn’t mean it or want it, but she got it. She also got death. One of Mildred’s billboards will read: “Raped while dying”.
That’s the thing. The young woman was alone. She was defenceless. Probably she was tipsy or even dizzy. She didn’t fully know what she was doing, walking down a country road late at night alone. She was looking for trouble, even if she wasn’t. She was young, defiant, reckless. Neuroscientists say it takes 20 years for the brain to develop to full capacity, for the soft skull to expand to make room for the brain, whereupon it hardens to protect the brain. That’s why adulthood in many countries begins at 20. In my home state of California it sensibly begins at 21. I remember how reckless and immature I was as a teenager. I thought I knew everything, which of course meant I knew nothing.
Death means full stop. Finality. The end of everything. No more time, hopes, dreams. No more new sunrise tomorrow. In one moment things are as they are, everything you know; in the next, oblivion, nothing. The living take the brunt of it all: the shock, confusion, pain, loss. They have to go on living through their own forms of oblivion — through drugs, alcohol, breakdown, religion.
Mildred’s peace will come, she thinks, when justice is done. It’s a workable theory and makes sense on the surface. But life is more complex than the theories that explain it. Other things are busy below the surface. Where does peace and acceptance come from? From billboards? From law courts? From police reports? The film asks because it wants to know, suggesting that surface can’t be enough.
The best films are often emotional journeys, explorations of personal revelation and evolution. In this one we mainly ride with Mildred. But there are others who suffer too. One is the chief of police in Ebbing, Bill Willoughby. He headed up the investigation into the rape and murder of Angela. He’s dying now too and knows it. He has pancreatic cancer, a virulent killer. How much longer to live? Months, not years. Another is Jason Dixon, a young, not very bright or likeable Ebbing police officer. Nobody loves him apart from his overprotective elderly mother. They live alone together. Dixon never found his fancy woman, never married. He’s a sad sack who hates being one. So he takes out his frustration on others because he can, his aggression protected by a police badge and the whiteness of his skin in a racist town, state, country. Detention rooms are what he likes most. In them he has the freedom to bully those whom he dislikes, disdains, envies, etc. How can this man invite even an ounce of our sympathy? Initially he can’t. But he also evolves through time. Like all of us, he’s not immune to suffering. Experience will teach him valuable things.
One potent emotion at the heart of things is love. It wears many faces and may often be hard to find, but it exists. Like energy, it can’t be destroyed, only transformed. The First Law of Thermodynamics says so, at least about energy. So that’s another interesting thing in the film. It understands and explores the transformational power of love, eschewing simplistic caricatures of it in favour of something deeper, something more mature and meaningful.
In every area of expertise the film is a triumph: writing, acting, directing, editing, cinematography, music. The three standout leads are phenomenal: Frances McDormand as Mildred, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon. The supporting cast is brilliant too. The film rightly won many awards at film festivals around the world, proof that cinema still exists as an art form in an age of ADD and smartphone dysfunction addiction.