How many angry men from cinema can you name? How many classic movies have centered around the plight of an angry man, avenging the death of his wife and children, or his best friend, or his dog?
Now think about angry women in cinema. Have you come up with any? Are there any over 50?
I have to admit that I was surprised by the reception to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which I found to be a mediocre film lifted by outstanding performances but laced through with seriously problematic takes on race and disability. There is something in Three Billboards, however, that has electrified the community of mothers across the Western world. We’re used to “mom movies” being light-hearted dramedies starring the Meryl Streeps, Judi Denches, and Celia Imries of the acting world as they make a change in their life and maybe take a dancing class. However, if there’s one demographic that seemed to take to Three BIllboards the most, it was moms. It was older women’s reactions have, in my experience, been the most uniformly positive. This is a film that does not hold with Hollywood’s expectations of What Women Want. There is no romance. There are no dance classes. There is swearing, and violence, and sharp humour, and pure, righteous anger. Yet (mostly white, cis, straight) women aged 50 and over, many of them mothers, have latched onto this movie. Some enjoyed the humour, some didn’t love the bloodier moments, but there was something about Three Billboards that spoke to their souls. The lined, aged, unsmiling face of Frances McDormand as she stands at the core of this film, stalwart, the unstoppable force hurtling her way through the immovable object that is the patriarchy. Her Mildred Hayes is hell bent on getting resolution for the horrific rape and murder of her daughter, and she smashes through the clergy, the law, and the everyday misogyny of the nuclear family on her way there.
Now, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a film interested in delivering easy resolution. It’s more interested in exploring the consequences of anger and bitterness. Martin McDonagh would rather investigate the way violence begets violence than reward his protagonist for her tenacity, regardless of how many male characters have been rewarded with their own resolutions before. Perhaps in another year, Three Billboards may have been a passing curiosity, a critical darling that made a blip at the box office but didn’t reach mainstream audiences. However, after the watershed moments for sexual harassment in 2017, a maelstrom of women’s anger has been unleashed on the world. There is a kind of constant, never-ending pain that uniquely targets women. While sexual harassment, assault, and rape against men are also significant problems, there is a constancy to the attacks women must fend off, from slights to assaults, that is unique and harrowing. After years of open “casting couch” secrets and suffering in silence, women were finally ready to blow the roof off Hollywood.
he recent #MeToo and #TimesUp tornadoes that have blown through Hollywood have upturned the careers of dozens of Hollywood men who believed fame would protect them from disgrace. As the spotlight has turned on them, casting in the harsh light of truth, we have also been blessed with the incredible, powerful voices of victims, mainly women, who have finally been granted the security to speak up without their own careers being destroyed in turn. One of the most notable, iconic images of #TimesUp has been the red-carpet interview in which Uma Thurman barely managed to contain her rage as she held her tongue about her own experience until she could speak more calmly. We now know the story she was holding in, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of the entire problem; after being attacked by Harvey Weinstein, Thurman informed her friend Quentin Tarantino of the attempted assault – and Hollywood royalty Tarantino put her life in danger trying to silence her in a dangerous stunt that could easily have gone wrong.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not Mildred Hayes won. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t always right. What matters is that, nevertheless, she persisted. What matters is that throughout the film, whenever she was knocked down or knocked back, whenever someone tried to silence her, she held onto her anger. And, through this anger, Mildred keeps her voice and her humanity. It’s easy to deny the humanity of someone you can reduce to an object; something to desire, or save, or ignore. It’s almost impossible to deny someone’s humanity when their anger is kept constantly in your peripheral vision. When it’s painted in red on fifteen-foot-tall billboards. When it’s burning down your institutions. When it’s bursting forth from your television sets. These are the voices that will not stay silent; the voices that burn with righteous indignation about how they and their daughters are treated in a patriarchal world. Women’s anger is so often denied, derided, or silenced, but in Mildred Hayes, older women finally get to see a woman be angry, and it’s a rush. There’s catharsis in watching Mildred drill holes in men who would silence her, shout down the discomfort of those who don’t like to be reminded of the horrific truth, storm into their institutions and demand to be heard. This is the catharsis that older women are tapping into. They are finally able to see their own anger portrayed on-screen with dignity and respect, and it’s a lightning in a bottle moment, elevating Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri into a cultural touchstone.