NOTE: This piece contains spoilers.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of Mildred Hayes’ rage against the police force of her town. Seven months after her daughter was murdered, no arrests have been made, and so she takes to the streets by commissioning three public roadside billboards calling the police chief, Willoughby, to account.
The trailer would have you believe it’s a straightforward, zero-sum, smoking gun ‘Western’, but the first ‘confrontation’ between Willoughby and Mildred – on a swing-set rather than in a saloon – shows these characters to be refreshingly unconventional; filled with humour, madness, and the quirkiest traces of grace.
Chief Willoughby is the unlikely centre of good in the story, even taking care to leave a series of pastoral letters on his death-bed, including one for his volatile – yet strangely loyal – junior officer.
‘What you need to be a detective’, Willoughby compels him, ‘is love, because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes.’ As worn out as this may sound, the film’s narrative is driven by the tension of how difficult these words are to live out.
Willoughby’s most Christ-like characteristic is shown in his radical hospitality towards Mildred and her rage against him. When she struggles to pay the monthly fee for the billboards indicting the chief, he pays for another month’s rent before he dies. He does so, he says, ‘for a laugh’; a counter-move leaving her to defend herself for still slamming a dead guy.
The sense you get, however, is that it’s actually because he is on her side. He’s on the side of the one speaking against him. And it’s this that points us to God. For what are the Psalms of lament (that include unabated rage and blame-casting at God) other than equivalent God-sponsored billboards addressed to him?
Chief Willoughby is God-like in his radical hospitality towards those who stand against him – even as he’s dying – in enabling their voices to be heard. And it’s this quality in the chief – giving space for the presence of his ‘others’: his enemies; his witless staff team – his radical acceptance of them all, that sets the atmosphere of the whole town; as though it is this hospitality that is quietly holding the fragile and fractured community together and keeping them from destroying each other.
Such is the excessive quirkiness of God’s gracious hospitality to us.