Photo: Fox Searchlight

If there were any doubts remaining that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the most divisive film of last year that got mostly glowing reviews, Sunday night’s Golden Globes—or, perhaps more accurately, the response to them on Twitter—decisively dispelled them. The backlash against Martin McDonagh’s gabby small-town drama, about a mother waging war against the police who have failed to find whoever raped and murdered her daughter, has been brewing for months. Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival back in September, Three Billboards has earned both raves (it popped up on our Best of 2017 list, for example) and a growing chorus of dissent. But it wasn’t until Sunday, perhaps, when the film won four major prizes (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, and the Globes’ rough equivalent to Best Picture, Best Motion Picture-Drama), that both the award-season viability of McDonagh’s third feature and the contempt many feel for it really shifted into focus. There are plenty of people who really, really hate this movie. And it’s probably going to win plenty more awards.

Three Billboards, in other words, is this year’s Birdman or La La Land: a critical darling whose strong Oscar prospects have amplified the ire of its very vocal detractors. (No shade thrown at the con camp, even if I disagree; it’s painful to watch a movie you despise garner praise, especially at the expense of more deserving contenders.) The key difference between this backlash and the usual, annual one is that McDonagh’s movie is raising hackles less for its dramatic failures (though some have objected to it on those grounds, too) then for how insensitively it handles sensitive subject matter. It’s a film that plays with fire—courting topicality in ways that feel both deliberate and accidental, toying with audience identification in ways that feel both daring and careless.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

The setup suggests a rousing (if melancholic and profane) underdog story, as Frances McDormand’s bereaved, enraged Mildred Hayes throws up the titular billboards, broadcasting the failure of the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) to crack the case of her daughter’s murder. The cops, she argues publicly, are “too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crimes,” and McDonagh appears to be arranging a fairly straightforward conflict between a badass, go-it-alone crusader and the violent, prejudiced, incompetent powers that be. But that’s not how Three Billboards unfolds, exactly. Its major dramatic gambit is to slowly unveil more of a moral gray area, undercutting Mildred’s righteousness (is she a hero or just an emotionally devastated person plowing over everyone around her?) while simultaneously encouraging empathy, even some sympathy for the ostensible villains, the baton-swinging cops. There was little evidence and no leads, it turns out, in the Hayes case, which complicates Mildred’s charges of negligence and incompetence.

She’s right about the racism, though. It’s the film’s treatment of the moronic Officer Dixon, whom Sam Rockwell just won the Golden Globe for playing, that’s stuck in a lot of craws. After all, now is far from the ideal time to extend an olive branch of understanding to bigoted cops. Dixon’s arc is less charitable than some have insisted; to see actual redemption in his furious fumbling toward justice is to deny the troubling implications of the film’s ending: more of a misguided redirection of violence and hatred than an overcoming of them. But it’s still dicey, the way McDonagh risks trivializing police brutality by presenting it as a character flaw, especially given how few scenes, lines, or traits he affords the film’s people of color. (Turning the discussion about the torture Rockwell’s abhorrent officer is said to have inflicted on a black civilian into a jokey back-and-forth is similarly misjudged.) In a sense, Three Billboards opens a can of worms and then quickly closes it—a point that my own positive review, written from a place of privilege, should have better addressed.

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Photo: Fox Searchlight

Is it possible to overlook the film’s politics? That depends on whether they’re as one-dimensionally toxic as some think they are. One dispiriting theory as to why Three Billboards has done so well with audiences, critics, and award voters is that it entertains the comforting thought that there could be hidden decency in the deplorable—be they racist cops, marching white supremacists, or just the asshole relative you argue with on Facebook. But I have a hunch the movie may also be connecting to something else, to a powerful current of anger currently flowing through Hollywood. McDonagh clearly engineered Three Billboards to capture the simmering unrest of here and now, and while he couldn’t have anticipated the reckoning that the industry would go through this fall—beginning, basically, with Harvey Weinstein’s downfall—there’s some accidental, zeitgeist-tapping resonance in the story of a fed-up woman striking back against powerful men who turn a blind eye to sexual assault.

Deliberately or not, that’s how Three Billboards was positioned during Sunday’s awards, its highlight reel and high-profile victories arriving toward the end of a show whose unofficial theme was Time’s Up. McDormand’s acceptance speech, delivered not long after Oprah’s, helped drive home this implicit narrative: the sense that the movie was somehow in sync with the inspirational, political spirit of the evening, and that its wins were the perfect punctuation to the event. The irony is that McDonagh isn’t interested in anything as cut-and-dry as a David-versus-Goliath story or a feminist revenge yarn; the empowering version of this movie is the one the writer-director only appears to be making, before veering off into thornier, more ethically complicated dramatic territory. But if Three Billboards actively interrogates anger as a force, ultimately landing far from an uplifting endorsement of its value, the movie (and McDormand’s fiery, showboating, take-no-shit performance) could still speak to those grappling with their own righteous rage. Which it to say, it’s probably capitalizing on the emotions going around right now. (And that’s setting aside the possibility that audiences are so starved for a major American movie with a female protagonist this tough-as-nails that they’ll forgive shortcomings, however glaring.)

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Whether Three Billboards is destined to infuriate its harshest critics with a Best Picture win remains to be seen; there’s no overlap in membership between the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press, which is why the Golden Globes are such an unreliable precursor for Hollywood’s biggest annual pageant of self-congratulation. (The guild awards provide a much more accurate preview of Oscar night—and sorry folks, but McDonagh’s film is well-represented there, too.) I suspect that Three Billboards would have had a tougher uphill climb in 2017 or 2016, during the Oscars So White controversy. It might still run into trouble with the new (and newly diverse) Academy; one year after Moonlight’s historic victory, handing the top prize to a drama that humanizes a racist cop might feel too much like a Trumpian backslide. Then again, it could be naïve to expect Hollywood to care about two social problems at the same time—and in 2018, the industry’s conscience is preoccupied. That’s why this flawed, provocative, controversial movie could still triumph, riding the wave of outrage it vaguely refracts instead of drowning in the outrage it’s provoked.