Every once in a while, I watch a film that disturbs and depresses me, while at the same time commands my respect and confronts my sensibilities.
Two nights ago, I braved the heavy rain and the flooding roads and watched such a film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. You can watch the preview here, but be warned this is not a light-hearted comic romp, where everyone ends up living happily ever after.
It is a black tragi-comedy that recently won several Golden Globe awards such as Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Film (Drama).
While I found myself at times smiling and even laughing, for the most part, I was struggling with the powerful themes of forgiveness and revenge, life and death, damnation and redemption, which collided with a blisteringly foul-mouthed script.
There were some tender moments, but the issues of suffering, domestic abuse, suicide, violence and rape were very much in your face. Without giving too much away, the story centres on a divorced mother, Mildred, who is grieving the abduction, rape and murder of her teenage daughter.
She is angry, really angry at the lack of progress in the police investigation.
Fuelled by this deep frustration, she rents three abandoned billboards near her home which read in sequence, “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come Chief Willoughby?”.
These three billboards create great controversy in the town and while having sympathy for the grieving mother, most of the town seems to side with the police chief who is himself struggling with cancer.
The film is full of painful confrontations like how to deal or not deal with domestic abuse, suicide, arson, injustice and racism.
Part of what hit me was the sense of anarchic nihilism that pervades the film, where so much emotion and action come from the toxic power of revenge.
At one moment the hurting mother reflects on the awful possibility that “there ain’t no God, and the whole world is empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other”. Is this really the truth about our existence?
Momentarily in my mind when I heard Mildred say these words, I wanted to put up three alternative billboards before her, “there is a God”, “the earth is charged with the grandeur of God” and “life is precious and we all matter”.
How tragic that the pain and suffering of life with all its questions and injustices can lead to a conclusion that essentially life has no ultimate meaning.
The Christian gospel operates from a very different script where justice can replace revenge, love can overcome hate and forgiveness can trump bitterness. “Three Billboards” is a powerful film and points to a journey towards redemption and ruin. I found myself wishing some of the characters were more open to the road less travelled, the way of Jesus.
Probably intentionally the film is full of caricatures; corrupt police, white racists, male abusers and predictably a Catholic priest who is viewed as insensitive and hypocritical.
Thankfully, we need not live out a caricature.
The Christian community can be a billboard for love, peace and reconciliation that our world needs to see. I pray that in some small way, the billboard people see in our lives may promote the Christian hope of wholeness, a restored community and the new beginning that the gospel brings.
Rev Steve Francis