The Conversation We Don't Seem to Be Having About 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri'
Last week, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri took home four Golden Globes, including the top award for Best Drama, and in doing so, the Martin McDonagh film not only made itself the frontrunner for the Oscars, but also a major target for backlash. This is not unusual, and some might argue that Three Billboards is falling prey to the same backlash that has damaged past Oscar winners and contenders like Silver Linings Playbook or The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire: They’re good films, but not necessarily Oscar-worthy films, and the backlash arises out of that discrepancy (the same could be said of 2004’s Oscar winner, Crash, except that Crash wasn’t even a “good” film).
But that’s not exactly what’s going on with Three Billboards. In most respects, it’s an Oscar-caliber film with Oscar-caliber performances and an Oscar-caliber pedigree. It was, indeed, the film I was most looking forward to over the Oscar season, although when I was finally able to see it, the movie left me with a vague sense of discomfort for reasons that have been elucidated by a lot of other critics in thoughtful, eloquent ways. Namely it’s because Sam Rockwell’s character — essentially a co-lead in the film — plays an unrepentant racist cop who has, in his history, an incident in which he tortured a black prisoner (this plot point is not minor; it’s repeatedly referred to in the movie). His character, however, is arguably redeemed by the end of the film (this matter is one of some minor debate), even though he never makes amends for his racist past. By the film’s conclusion, Rockwell’s character has seen the error of his ways in some regards, but he’s never asked to confront his racist past before the audience is allowed to see him favorably. The problem is compounded by the fact that the few black characters in the film are little more than ciphers. Personally, I felt uncomfortable not only with the venomous use of the N-word by Rockwell’s character, but the more casual use of it by Frances McDormand’s character, who can best be described as a bad-ass woman who took control of her own narrative, but who also may be a racist herself.
There have been a lot of hot takes from Film Twitter about Three Billboards in the last week, some of which have promoted very valid points and others of which have made me want to disassociate myself with the film critic community all together. There was a particularly icky piece written by Awards Daily over the weekend, which notes that Three Billboards has been incredibly well received by Black Critic’s Organizations (a point of which I was unaware) before making a bizarre argument that Three Billboards is being attacked not because of its racist undertones (or overtones), but because certain critics are bashing Three Billboards as a way to promote Get Out’s Oscar chances.
Whatever valid principles are upheld by awards voters each year, you can bet a good number of those proponents have latched onto handy agendas as fans of other films, films they’d rather see win. Many of these coattail activists seem to think if they target Three Billboards that another film they love more will emerge triumphant.
That’s not just a terribly misguided view of the situation, but the opinion of someone (or in this case, ‘someones’) who spends way too much time thinking about Awards races. I mean, is there really this vast left-wing, politically-correct agenda to tear down one film in the hopes of improving the chances of another? And in the off chance that there is, Jesus: Get a life, people. It’s just an award. What kind of bubble are you people living in?
My point, however, has nothing to do with the arguments for or against Three Billboards or Get Out (although, if asked, Get Out in a heartbeat), but about the very nature of the debate. I’m not really interested in taking a position on either side, but I do find it interesting that we are evaluating the Oscar chances of a movie based on the morality of the characters. No one is really taking issue with the quality of the film itself (it’s a very well made, very well acted, and very well written film that does, admittedly, get a little muddled) although if we’re taking issue with characters, Woody Harrelson’s sheriff character is the one I find most troubling, because he’s a goddamn golden boy even though he completely enables Rockwell’s character.
But again: That’s not the issue I’m here to discuss. I’m mostly fascinated with how we are beginning to hold the moral character of certain characters against a movie (or maybe this is not new at all?). I mean, this is small-town Missouri we’re talking about, where racist cops are undoubtedly not in short supply. Sam Rockwell’s character is the kind of cop one might expect to encounter in a town like this. He’s a fact of life. Do we hold that against the film? Maybe, as some have argued, it’s a matter of not showing the torture. If viewers had witnessed Rockwell torturing a black prisoner, would it have made it more difficult for the audience to sympathize with him? Maybe. But we did see him beat the hell out of an innocent guy and throw him through a window, and yet, many in the audience still forgave him in the end.
But it’s not like we don’t regularly reward morally heinous characters with Oscar gold. I mean: Heath Ledger’s The Joker; Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh; Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector. These guys were mass murderers, and we didn’t judge those movies based on the actions of their villains. But maybe it’s different, because those villains aren’t “redeemed,” so much as they are just beloved by fans. Is mass murderer more palatable than racism? (Yes, as a filmgoer, yes.)
I do find it interesting — and not altogether a bad thing — that we now apply our cultural mores onto the substance of a film, though I am hesitant about where it might lead us. The kinds of movies that are generally nominated for Oscars tend to play in murkier areas of morality, and the characters involved are often very flawed human beings. I’m not OK if we only reward movies with virtuous protagonists, although I think I might be OK if we rejected films with racist or abusive heroes, and maybe that’s the rub in Three Billboards. Maybe that’s why the movie didn’t sit well with me. The “good guy” is not really a good guy.
But then again, why is it the filmmaker’s job to emphasize the obvious? Shouldn’t the audience refuse to see Rockwell’s character as redeemed? Does a movie need to specifically indict its morally flawed characters in order to be considered Oscar worthy? Is a certain progressive viewpoint necessary? I don’t know. Maybe? Yes? I mean, look at it this way: If Ed Norton’s character in American History X had never seen the error of his ways, would that have been a good movie?
Do our protagonists need to be good people? Or do they just need to be good people in the right kinds of ways? If Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) had been a “good man” except that he was a racist in No Country for Old Men, would we have viewed that movie in a completely different manner? Probably, but I think it’s an interesting conversation to have.