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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Traces of Grace

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.


Jen Logan


  1. Thanks.

    By John Dobson  -  9 Mar 2018
  2. Brilliant! Grace, calm, love, thought….
    And I love the idea of the psalms as God-sponsored billboards addressed to him…

    By Howard Peskett  -  9 Mar 2018
  3. I really liked your analogy helping us to see Christ like qualities in this film and how humans are capable of emulating Him.

    I believe it was God’s ‘traces of grace’ that led to our Good Friday agreement. Please pray He will do so again

    By John from Belfast  -  9 Mar 2018
  4. I appreciated this – thank you.

    Neil Hughes

    By Neil Hughes  -  9 Mar 2018
  5. I have tickets to see the film, and look forward to seeing it even more now that I’ve read this article.

    By Lindy  -  9 Mar 2018
  6. Brilliant

    By Angela Somerton  -  9 Mar 2018
  7. Insightful. Well done!

    By Brian  -  9 Mar 2018
  8. I was moved to tears by this article – always the sign for me that a fundamental truth has been expressed about the nature of reality. How amazing is our God. Many thanks, Jen, for your insight.

    By Rosie Greenhalgh  -  9 Mar 2018
  9. It has become a “must see” film. Thank you.

    By Maureen  -  9 Mar 2018
  10. Thanks for this. Here’s another important perspective on the same film, with major plot spoiler:

    By Sean Mullan  -  9 Mar 2018
  11. An excellent comment on a great movie. So grateful that you didn’t react simply to the ‘industrial language’ right at the beginning, and that you were open to the profound truth of the drama.

    Chick Yuill

    By Chick Yuill  -  9 Mar 2018
  12. Very helpful insights. Thank you

    By Chris Edmonds  -  9 Mar 2018
  13. Sean Miller’s link is worth a look. Very strong alternative view.

    By Rod Boucher  -  9 Mar 2018
  14. I haven’t seen the movie, but I like the message, and how you highlight its reflection of 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?”

    Great line!

    By Cynthia Tews  -  9 Mar 2018
  15. I agree that the alternative view offered in the link shows in his final act a very different side to the character of the police chief. Maybe it’s good to remember that whilst he had Christ-like attributes he was still human and therefore imperfect. Our best intentions do not always lead to right actions.

    By Catherine Staff  -  9 Mar 2018
  16. Great reflections. Here’s another I added to the mix a few days back. Hope some of your readers might find it helpful also.

    By David Chan  -  10 Mar 2018
  17. Thank you.

    By Philip Hamilton  -  14 Mar 2018
  18. Really enjoyed your insights, having seen the movie, thank you.

    By Jo Desmond  -  14 Mar 2018
  19. Having read Sean Mullan’s comments above and the spoiler. It really is a spoiler for me because of the legacy he leaves to his family.
    I will not go to the movie now as I agree with Sean’s assessment,

    As for people laughing in Belfast at the tragi/comedy ; we are possible immune to violence now and our ‘dourness’ actually comes wrapped with gallows humour. People in Dublin who were silent during the film are fortunate.
    Please pray for us

    By John from Belfast  -  16 Mar 2018

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