Warning: Conains spoilers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
It's happening again with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but this time, the debate around the best picture nominee is different. Three Billboards is a movie fighting against itself. To some, Three Billboards is a masterful work about anger in America, made unforgettable by exceptionally strong performances. But to others, the movie insensitively handles sensitive subject matter, and features a problematic redemption of a racist character.
Now that the Oscars are approaching, the chorus of controversy is getting louder. As Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times, “The more love the prize givers throw at it, the more some people want to throw themselves off a cliff.” Expect many think pieces to arise in the weeks before the Oscars, because this controversy isn’t going away.
Before we start, let’s get the story straight.
In Three Billboards, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose teenage daughter had been raped and murdered in the field outside her house several months prior. Fed up with what she perceives as the police department’s inaction, she plasters incendiary messages on three billboards along the highway, directed at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). While Willoughby is pretty chill about the direct attack, Mildred’s move attracts the ire of one of the town’s particularly vile cops, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Within the small Missouri town, Dixon was known for being a notorious racist and jerk — he went too far torturing a Black man in police custody. But Mildred is violent, too. Their contentious relationship results in a series of escalating acts of violence, vandalism, and general chaos.
What was the critical response when the movie debuted?
Three Billboards premiered on November 10, 2017, to an onslaught of rave reviews. Christopher Orr of The Atlantic called it “a revelation,” and one of the best movies of the year, as did the four-star (out of four stars) review on Roger Ebert. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal deployed a litany of adjectives to capture the movie’s contradictory nature: “The movie is, by turns – and sometimes simultaneously — darkly comic, blazingly profane, flat-out hilarious and shockingly violent, not to mention flippant, tender, poetic, and profound.” Refinery29 liked it — we praised the movie’s conversation about violence against women as being “frighteningly relevant” given the current moment (though in January, after the dissent got louder, we reconsidered our overall opinion). The critical feedback resulted in a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%.
Why is the movie controversial?
It is, as Alissa Wilkinson of Vox puts it, “a question of redemption.” At the end of Three Billboards, Dixon gruffly reconciles with Mildred; together, the vigilantes set forth on a revenge-fueled road trip. Dixon’s change of heart arises after a confrontation with a rapist at a bar. At last, his rage is channeled toward the same target as Mildred’s.
With this ending, movie seems to forgive Dixon, without showing him actually doing the work of changing. “It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption,” Hanif Abdurraqib wrote in the Pacific Standard.
Further, the movie’s few Black characters don’t play significant roles in the narrative, nor do they receive meaningful screen time. One Black woman works in a store along with Mildred, and is put in jail for her association with her. A Black police chief comes in toward the end, but, as Wesley Morris of the Times said, “He’s much a prop as one of the billboards.” Continuing Morris’ sentiment, Abdarraqib wrote in his Pacific Standard review, “Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all.”
In an article for the Daily Beast, Ira Madison III identified a parallel between Three Billboards and Crash, which won Best Picture in 2004. Three Billboards “attracts the type of crowd that likes to reward simplistic tales of racism like Crash, where white people learn how to be good to one another at the expense of Black people.”
Finally, all question of content aside, the movie’s artfulness has also been criticized. On the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour episode devoted to the movie, the phrases “B-Grade Coen Brothers” and “bargain basement Tarantino” were passed around. In my personal favorite description, Morris called the movie “a cupcake rolled in glass. It all just feels off.”
Does this change the movie’s Oscar odds?
Love it or hate it, you can’t deny Three Billboards’ awards season momentum. So far, the movie has swept most awards shows. It won four Golden Globes, as well as the SAG Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, Best Actress (McDormand), and Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell). Even if the backlash affects Three Billboards’ chances at winning Best Picture (The Shape of Water is another frontrunner), it’s likely that Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell will still be recognized for their work in the movie.