'Three Billboards' backlash flows from debate over its message

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" has become one of Oscar season's most divisive films, producing fierce bl...

Posted: Feb. 13, 2018 6:39 AM
Updated: Feb. 13, 2018 6:39 AM

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" has become one of Oscar season's most divisive films, producing fierce blowback based on what feels like a not-entirely-fair interpretation about what it says, or doesn't, about people's ability to achieve redemption.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, "Three Billboards" is being released on DVD Feb. 13, capitalizing on its Academy Awards exposure ("The Shape of Water" comes out two weeks later). Thus far, the film's accolades include seven nominations, plus a number of wins at run-up events, including Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes for the movie, Frances McDormand and co-star Sam Rockwell.

The drumbeat against the film, however, has grown louder, with critics deriding the narrative arc of Rockwell's character, Dixon, a racist cop prone to violence. Among the broadsides, the most bruising came from the New York Times' Wesley Morris, who lambasted McDonagh (an Irish playwright who has dabbled in film) and his movie for playing like "a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are."

As many analysts have noted, the major issue in "Three Billboards" (and this requires some spoilers to discuss) is whether Dixon is redeemed by doing what amounts to a good thing near the movie's end. But a fairer reading of McDonagh's script is that people are complicated, requiring a more nuanced view that's reflected in the film's inconclusive ending.

When the movie begins, it's easy to surmise the audience is expected to identify with, and root for, McDormand's grieving mother, who puts up the billboards demanding justice for her murdered daughter. Yet as the story progresses, she proceeds to do a number of terrible things in her conviction about the righteousness of her cause, in a way that makes her less sympathetic.

Similarly, one can argue that Dixon's noble act doesn't change who he is in any significant way. He simply demonstrates himself capable of doing the right thing under certain circumstances.

"Three Billboards" is on somewhat shakier ground when critics point to what amounts to using racism as a plot device -- basically, a short-hand way to establish the flaws in Dixon. But McDonagh's writing is so sharp and searing -- perhaps especially in the dialogue for Woody Harrelson's small-town sheriff, who easily could have been a cartoon -- as to overcome those shortcomings. (The Writers Guild ruled McDonagh's script ineligible on technical grounds, but it's among the film's Oscar nominees.)

A developing backlash against a movie perceived as an Oscar frontrunner has become relatively common, given entertainment media's need to chew over every aspect of the race during an "awards season" that grinds on for months. That reaction picked up steam after the Golden Globes, as Vox noted, with "Three Billboards" being "treated to the ritual social-media dunking that greets all unworthy awards winners."

"Three Billboards" is one of a handful of films perceived as having a legitimate shot at being named best picture -- an unusually wide-open field, given that the focus by now has usually concentrated around two or three. Part of that likely has to do with the absence of many truly great movies this year, and the fact key contenders -- like "The Shape of Water" (the pick by the directors and producers guilds) and "Get Out" (the WGA's original screenplay winner) -- come from genres that seldom receive top awards recognition.

A "Three Billboards" triumph will surely trigger renewed sniping, while its failure to do so will provoke debate regarding whether the backlash derailed a movie that was seen as being well on its way to Oscar glory.

The truth, in either event, is a little more complicated -- which seems rather appropriate, frankly, for a movie whose pros and cons can't be reduced to billboard-friendly bites.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" will be available on DVD beginning Feb. 13.

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