The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Three Billboards’ is now an Oscar front-runner. Here’s why there’s a backlash.

Golden Globe winners Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has had quite the week. Not only was the darkly comic drama the surprise big winner at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, taking home four prizes, but it’s also a major contender at the BAFTAs. When the nominees were announced Tuesday, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s movie wound up with nine nominations, for best film, director and screenplay, among others.

It seems like we might have an Oscars front-runner. Just as the buzz about “The Post” and “All the Money in the World” begins to fade, suddenly an earlier release is coming in hot.

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Not everyone is pleased with this turn of events. Shortly after the movie was released to almost unanimously positive reviews, the criticism amped up, mainly revolving around the way the movie deals with racism.

Frances McDormand stars as a woman whose daughter was murdered. A year later, with no progress from the police on the case, she decides to take action by advertising her discontent for the whole town to see. She rents three billboards, displaying the all-caps words: “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?”

This sets up a war in the small town, with McDormand’s Mildred on one side and pretty much everyone else on the other. Most people side with the police chief (played by Woody Harrelson) and no one more so than his idiotic deputy (Sam Rockwell).

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McDormand won a Golden Globe for her performance and will no doubt get an Oscar nomination, which few are disputing she deserves. The character she portrays is so unapologetically enraged that watching the movie around its release, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke, felt particularly cathartic. As her allies disappear and those in power try to silence her, she only gets louder.

But critics of the film take issue with Dixon, the character Rockwell won a Globe for playing: a racist cop who routinely abuses his power. The only way to truly get into the complaints about the movie is to reveal plot details, so be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

Over the course of the movie, nearly every character seems to be aware of Dixon’s history of “torturing” at least one black prisoner in custody, though the film never fully delves into the details of what happened. We also see the cop nearly kill a man, who’s white, by beating him before tossing him out a second-story window. Dixon doesn’t suffer consequences for those actions, though; instead he gets to enjoy a redemption arc.

During a recent episode of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, the four critics weighing in delivered a unanimous takedown of the movie, calling it both “B-grade Coen Brothers” and “bargain basement Tarantino.” Gene Demby, who’s also the host of the podcast Code Switch, most fully delved into what he found problematic about the depiction of racism, saying that McDonagh treated Dixon’s abuses like “a character beat” and let “the interiority of abusive white police officers take precedence over the brutality they visit on people.”

The black characters that do appear in the film are sidelined in small roles with plot points that serve to advance the story of the white leads. For example, Mildred’s closest friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is harassed by the police and arrested as a way to get to Mildred. Demby called attention to the fact that, when Denise is finally released, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by what happened to her — she’s more concerned with how her friend is doing.

“I’m just shocked that so many people liked this movie so much because there’s so much structurally wrong with it,” Demby said, “but there’s so much morally wrong with it.”

Host Linda Holmes was also troubled by the way domestic violence was used in the movie. When Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes) chokes her, the way she “processes domestic violence is so glib in this way — and I understand that a real person in that situation might do that,” but the movie doesn’t take “a point of view about that fact.”

Meanwhile, Washington Post op-ed writer Alyssa Rosenberg has argued that the film “didn’t need its racist cop” and criticized the way the film wastes “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage by relegating him to a role defined by his dwarfism.

Writers for BuzzFeed, the Guardian, the Daily Beast and HuffPost, among other outlets, have also lodged complaints, to say nothing of Twitter users following Sunday’s awards show.

As of early December, McDonagh seemed untroubled by the complaints. When asked by the L.A. Times about the film’s moral ambiguity, he said, “That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe.”

Audience reviews online — though not a perfect metric — remain strong. On Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, the film has extremely positive numbers from viewers, with 4.2 out of 5 and 8.4 out of 10, respectively. Ninety-three percent of critics gave it a positive review, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 8.6 out of 10.

So now it’s the Academy’s turn to weigh in. Will the increasingly diverse (but still disproportionately white) pool of Oscar voters be turned off by the film’s depiction of racism? Or will the movie’s momentum continue? Prepare for the next backlash when the nominations are announced Jan. 23.