Against the backdrop of a Trump-led USA both Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri and Last Flag Flying - a film that has been marketed as ‘as subtly anti-Trump as they come' - bring to the core of their focus, issues of race, power and identity in what is still undoubtedly, as stated by the Laurence Fishburne’s character Reverend Richard Mueller in Last Flag Flying, “a great country”.
From billboards to flags, steadfast symbols of corporate and conservative America are reappropriated. On-a-mission-for-justice mother Mildred, stunningly played by Frances McDormand, sees three dishellevelled and long abandoned billboards as a vehicle to take on the local police and give them a visual kick up the ass to revisit the case of her daughter’s rape and murder. And the thing is, the police can’t take them down. Anyone can, as long as they don’t break rules around defamation of character, purchase advertising space - it’s the right of every American; and it’s one used both to splendid narrative effect by lead antagonist Mildred, and to stunning cinematic effect by British director Martin McDonagh. The evolution of the billboards is the story of the town, of all the ‘sides’ involved in the war that erupts around these monuments to a mother’s grief. It is the story of a white woman’s fight for justice, be that for her daughter or against the endemic racism of the local police force; it is the journey of the chief of police and his crew, as they themselves both mete out vigilante ‘justice’ and in some ways so desperately want to find it for Mildred too. It is above all a story of high-intensity emotions, discharged through dark-witted explosions of dialogue from writing that pulls no punches and leaves you emotionally reeling, laughing, and often somewhere in between.
Meanwhile, Last Flag Flying tells the story of one ex-Marine’s reckoning with his own military history and the untimely death of his own son in the same uniform in which he too once served. Set in Bush junior’s America, with troops invading Sadam’s Iraq, this Ex-Marine is unwilling and unable to swallow the generic ‘died a hero’ narrative fed to him. He seeks out his fellow Vietnam veterans Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal (Bryan Cranston), and asks them for their support in his hour of need. What ensues is a road trip movie: As the journey progresses the characters wrestle with coming to terms with who they once were and who they are now. As they revisit the past, they relax back into the seats of trains, cars, trucks, and simultaneously relax into themselves and each other’s company. It becomes something of an epic saga but one that keeps you engrossed and on the move with them - through the genius acting of the three leads, writing that perfectly balances the tragic and comic, and direction that subtly evokes not only the vastness of the US but also the more human-scale connection its people have with it.
Both films juxtapose what we may initially feel to be clear ideas of good versus bad, moral versus immoral. But both films leave us feeling that these distinctions are never as binary as, say, police versus people, military versus civilians, nationalism versus patriotism. Both films leave you with not only a strong feeling of acceptance of human fallibility but also our potential to change and grow. As the American flag is meticulously folded to be laid to rest with the deceased youth, we understand that the history of this country is not only that of the institutions of state, but is, and will continue to be, in the hands of its diverse and questioning citizens and the characters of these two fantastic films.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is currently showing at Picturehouse at FACT.