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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

This is a brilliant and powerful film about anger and revenge. The anger of the main character, Mildred, a mother, played by Frances McDormand, is understandable but also excessive and horribly destructive. Her daughter was raped and murdered, raped while dying, we are told, and the crime remains unsolved. Mildred goes around town a festering wound, angry at everyone, bitter, foul-mouthed, and bitterly funny. She seems to feel no guilt about the fact that the night her daughter was raped and killed she had asked to borrow the car, Mildred had refused, and they had flown into an argument ending with the daughter screaming "alright I'll walk then and I hope I get raped," and Mildred yelling back "and I hope you do."

Mildred can't grieve, only rage. The plot revolves around Mildred renting three billboards outside town and using them to call out the town's police chief for not solving the crime. But this is not a story of police indifference and incompetence and a heroic mother's crusade for justice. The police chief is a good man who wants to solve the crime, and has tried, but he can't go to the extent Mildred would have him go to - take DNA samples from every man in town, from every man in the country - people have rights, he tells her. Other people's rights mean nothing to this raging mother. Nor do other people's lives. The police chief also tells her he's dying of cancer, and Mildred cares not a whit. When somebody sets fire to her billboards - she doesn't know who did it, it turns out it was her ex-husband, father of their murdered daughter, when he was drunk - Mildred's rage just escalates, and she firebombs the police station that night. Inside is a police detective who emerges from the building in flames. There is peripheral brutality too, set off by her quest for justice - one man beaten and thrown out a two-story window, another man who has been investigated and was not even in the United States at the time of her daughter's murder, who Mildred and the police detective are pursuing with the aim of killing as Three Billboards ends.

The plot of Three Billboards reminded me of the old Jacobean revenge tragedies I studied in graduate school. They had a standard plot structure: the hero, who has been wronged and cannot get justice from the law, pursues revenge on his own, and becomes as corrupt and evil as a result as the person who did the initial wrong. In revenge tragedy all the characters - hero, friends, family, villains, and fellow-conspirators - died bloody on-stage deaths in the final scene. A contemporary audience would have no stomach for the kind of moral absolutes that characterized Renaissance revenge tragedies. Shakespeare himself had to expand the genre by giving the wronged Hamlet a profound ambivalence about whether to avenge his father's death.

Three Billboards adds to its story of revenge its tough, funny dialogue, a handful of comic characters, lack of realistic repercussions for the stream of violence, and an ambiguous ending that gives the audience a reason to hope, but not be sure, that Mildred might finally be ready to end her quest for revenge. Perhaps all this makes it easy for an audience to find the meaning in the movie that they want to find. But for me, in spite of her greatness as an actor, the affection audiences have for her, the hard-edged, funny lines she gets, and the fact that the other characters don't blame her (non-judgemental to the core), Frances McDormand's character is irredeemably corrupted by her hatred, and deserves to perish in the final scene, as she would have in an age of drama that possessed a surer moral compass than ours.

Jan Pridmore

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