How Three Billboards went from film fest darling to awards-season controversy

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Fox Searchlight

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed poised from the start to be an awards-season steamroller. It boasts a bevy of strong performances led by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson, and a barnburning screenplay by McDonagh — all of whom are among the film’s seven Oscar nominations, which also include Best Picture. And it was clear from the trailer that Three Billboards was a movie about a woman fed up with the world’s injustice in general and her own town’s specifically; McDonagh had been working on the screenplay for years, but its arrival seemed perfectly timed for the end of 2017.

The film raked in accolades from critics at its festival premiere in Venice and more in Toronto the next week. (I saw it in Toronto, and though I didn’t love the film as much as some of my colleagues, I appreciated what it was going for.) But it wasn’t just many critics who loved the movie: The ticket-buying audience at the public screenings in Toronto also voted to award the film the People’s Choice Award, historically a solid indicator of future awards-season success. The audience picked Three Billboards over crowd-pleasing movies like The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, and Molly’s Game. Clearly, it had hit a nerve.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell at the premiere of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017.
Michael Tran/Getty Images

But when the movie started screening outside the festival circuit weeks later, what had looked like consensus between both audiences and critics began to crumble. Three Billboards got something very right about women’s rage, but it also got something very wrong about race — no small matter for a film set in Missouri in 2017 that features an openly racist cop who dances around the n-word and has tortured a black man in police custody.

It’s not unusual for a movie with positive buzz coming off the festival circuit to fall prey to a backlash cycle (as with La La Land) or to other, more serious matters (as with The Birth of a Nation). Nor is it unusual for critics and viewers to be divided on a film (as with The Last Jedi).

But what’s happened with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t fall neatly into any of those categories. “Backlash” can simply amount to conversations among critics about the artistic and aesthetic merits of particular films, but the conversation around Three Billboards goes deeper. Or it can be related to new revelations about the film’s creator, as with The Birth of a Nation’s Nate Parker or I Love You Daddy’s Louis C.K. — but that’s not the case here either. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of audiences and critics disagreeing, but the congruity between critics and audiences at TIFF indicates that something else is at play.

So what’s the source of the Three Billboards “backlash”? Whose fault is it? Is someone wrong in their view of the film? And what does it say about the way we watch films today? Answering those questions means looking at not just the film itself and its critical responses, but also one of its primary influences: the work of Flannery O’Connor, whose worldview stumbles when transferred to McDonagh’s film, scrambling its internal logic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about an angry woman and a corrupt cop

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Fox Searchlight

Note: It’s impossible to address these questions adequately without talking about the film’s plot, so spoilers follow.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie about a bereaved mother named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) who has had it with the failure of the local police department to find the person responsible for raping and murdering her daughter. She rents three billboards on a road leading out of Ebbing and pays to have them emblazoned with black lettering on a red background:


Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) takes the whole thing more or less in stride, but one of his cops, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is less sanguine about it. While Mildred’s campaign makes regional news and stirs up the town, Dixon goes on a warpath of sorts, trying to bully the billboard company into getting the signs removed and Mildred into backing off.

The situation keeps escalating — eventually Molotov cocktails are involved — but it morphs, too, especially after a momentous event that leaves Dixon reeling: Willoughby, who has been suffering from pancreatic cancer, takes his own life one night, which sends Dixon into a moral spiral.

By the end of the film, Mildred and Dixon have reached a kind of understanding, one that joins them together in a grudging alliance; they may not be friends, but their rage is now pointed in the same direction.

Most everyone agrees that what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri gets right is its portrayal of a woman who’s finally had enough. Mildred isn’t what you’d call a “likable” character — her cruel treatment of James (Peter Dinklage), who’s just trying to take her on a date, is especially wince-inducing — but she’s a grieving mother and an ass-kicker and certainly a relatable character for many viewers. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s sharp as a tack and knows her way around an insult.) That McDormand’s raw performance is winning awards is no shocker, and after her Best Actress win at the Golden Globes and her Oscar nomination, she seems like a clear frontrunner for the big award in March.

The controversy around Three Billboards isn’t really about Mildred, though. It’s about Sam Rockwell’s character, the racist Officer Dixon. McDonagh writes Dixon as a hick and a loser who still lives with his verbally abusive mother and almost failed out of school. He’s obviously an idiot, a screw-up and an alcoholic who can’t control his impulses and turns to violence far, far too quickly for a cop (or anyone, really).

Sam Rockwell and Sandy Martin in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Fox Searchlight

He’s also an unabashed racist, who explodes at Mildred when she taunts him for torturing a black man, and throughout the film his matter-of-fact belief that black people simply aren’t real people is made more than evident. That the movie is set (though visibly not shot) in Missouri adds an extra painful layer to this characterization, given the state’s history of police brutality toward people of color, particularly in Ferguson.

Dixon, and his racism, is where the controversy lies. It’s not about whether he’s a racist — that’s obvious — but rather about how the film wants audiences to feel about Dixon. We’re introduced to him as a caricature calculated to offend, the cop who tortured a black man in custody, who gets drunk and threatens people, who cares about people fearing the police more than things like justice and public safety. The only person who seems to see anything good in Dixon is Willoughby, who tells him in a letter that he is a good man “deep down” — and the reasons he thinks that are never really clear. In short, Dixon is a bad cop, on top of being an idiot.

The controversy over Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has to do with redemption

Where the film’s fans and its detractors seem to diverge is on how Dixon’s character develops over the film’s runtime. Though Mildred is introduced as the protagonist of Three Billboards, she evolves into something more like an antagonist in the end, while Dixon undergoes some kind of transformation. The movie takes pains to show that some (not all, but definitely some) of his blatant bigotry and general awfulness comes from his upbringing, particularly his mother (Sandy Martin), who denigrates him at every turn.

So when Dixon’s violence is turned toward ends that match Mildred’s, it read as a redemption arc for some. Dixon overhears a man bragging about sexual assault and, convinced that he’s Mildred’s daughter’s rapist, leaps into action. It turns out the man isn’t the rapist, but Mildred and Dixon, reasoning that he clearly raped somebody, set out somewhat ruefully to kill him anyhow. (It isn’t clear, from the end of the movie, whether they follow through on that plan.)

And that’s where the film leaves us. That didn’t sit well with some critics, who saw it as a parry on the film’s part to redeem Dixon without asking him to do anything but the most basic work toward that redemption.

Frances McDormand, Clarke Peters, and Lucas Hedges in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Fox Searchlight

“Rockwell’s violent character nearly dies in Three Billboards and he loses his job, so his only course of redemption is helping McDormand hunt for her daughter’s rapist,” Ira Madison III wrote at the Daily Beast. “He discovers potential information by happenstance, but we’re supposed to believe he has such a moral compass that he springs into action.”

“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 at Pacific Standard.

“McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody ... and then Three Billboards seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life,” April Wolfe wrote at the Village Voice. “In some ways, watching this film is like reading those alt-right fashion profiles of Richard Spencer that insisted we overlook his campaign of quiet terror and find common ground with him. Nope.”

These opinions, and many others, saw Dixon’s turn toward a more just cause and recoiled: It was unearned, it felt trite, and most of all, it denigrated the experience of the film’s few black characters, particularly the unseen ones Dixon had tortured — as if their lives really didn’t matter except as props for a white man’s redemption. One black woman, significantly, is jailed for days by Dixon simply because she’s Mildred’s friend, but the film never bothers to comment on her experience once she’s released. She’s just another piece of Dixon’s puzzle.

Not everyone read Dixon’s arc as redemptive. (Truthfully, it had not occurred to me at all.) Writing at the Washington Post, Sonny Bunch suggested the movie was best read as containing not a redemption arc, but one of damnation. The Telegraph’s critic Robbie Collin wrote at length in a thread on Twitter about how the character functioned within the grotesque mode, arguing that “the fact the empathy and disgust come hand in hand [in that mode] is *the most important part*. It’s basically the opposite of a redemption arc, which takes you on a fun ride from the latter to the former, and we all live happily ever after.” (Wolfe took issue with that reading.)

So is there a “right” interpretation of Dixon’s arc? This is the hardest question to answer when it comes to situations like these; what you see in a work of art has everything to do with who you are and what you bring to the work, and as I wrote in December, there’s a very real sense in which nobody ever sees the same movie.

But what is certain about Three Billboards is that if this many people saw Dixon’s arc as redemptive — and if we take the most charitable view, that it wasn’t intended to trivialize the experiences of abused and tortured black characters in order to humanize a white character — then the problem is in the film itself, which allowed room for a reading that was counter to its intentions. (If that sort of dehumanization of black people was the film’s intention, then it has another problem altogether.) A film that can be read by viewers who approach it in good faith in a manner that is counter to its intentions is simply flawed storytelling.

In the case of Three Billboards, those flaws lie in two areas. One, it’s definitely an overstuffed film, taking on so many matters at once that some of them will inevitably get treated as props — in this case, the matter of race. And two, an oft-leveled criticism of the film seems relevant here: that McDonagh, who is Irish, seems to have crash-landed into a setting he doesn’t really understand and didn’t particularly care to learn about before he tried to mimic it onscreen.

“McDonagh’s attempts to translate the working-class Irish clichés of his previous writing into America’s history of tension between white and black men is more than horribly misguided, it’s distasteful,” Madison writes in his piece, later noting that “whether it be through malice or ignorance, McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes.” (You can almost imagine a version of this movie titled Three Billboards Outside Kilkenny that would have worked much better.)

Probably the best article I read on the film was by BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore, who carefully threaded a difficult needle by exploring how the film both encapsulates a kind of rage and treats matters of race flippantly, failing its characters and its audience in the process by falling prey to the fallacy that we can only be angry at one thing at once. It wound up undercutting the film’s appeal, she wrote: “But while [Mildred’s] is a rage that’s exhilarating to witness, it’s a rage that’s not available to everyone. Just as not everyone in Ebbing can claim the protection of being considering ‘good,’ we still don’t live in a world where everyone gets to be angry.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri only works on a level to which its own universe doesn’t hew

As a critic, and one who’s written pretty extensively on religion and the movies, I instantly latched onto the early tell in the film that McDonagh was trying to channel Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic writer from the American South who is practically a saint among Christians who think seriously about literature. Caleb Landry Jones’s character, who runs the billboard company, is reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” when Mildred first shows up in his office. Even without that tell, it would have been obvious: The device of a set of billboards and a bunch of messed-up characters is vintage O’Connor.

That O’Connor was a devout, practicing Catholic who often decried what she saw as the sentimentalism and namby-pambyism of religious literature in her time is no secret to those who’ve read her writing in books like Mystery and Manners and her letters in The Habit of Being. It’s also the key to her work. As I wrote in my review,

In O’Connor’s South and in Ebbing, Missouri, the world is wild and violent, a gothic mid-space suspended in a creaky old town located somewhere between heaven and hell. Nobody living there, whether they’re obsessed with justice or loving toward their family or just living a banally boring life, is inherently good. But sometimes, if you squint and let your guard down just for a moment, a bit of grace worms its way through the cracks anyhow.

O’Connor’s most well-known short story is probably “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” about a family on a road trip who are murdered by a notorious serial killer called the Misfit, and to say anyone is “redeemed” in that story would be quite a stretch. But there’s a moment — just a flash, and a twisted one — where you catch a glimpse of light for the story’s most reprehensible character, who is not the serial killer but the racist, narcissistic grandmother. It doesn’t end well. But it’s there all the same.

Frances McDormand and Peter Dinklage in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MIssouri.
Fox Searchlight

O’Connor’s theological commitments — traditional Christian ones about an utterly broken world that is flawed not just in the individuals but in the systems all around them — are what make her stories work. In Christian theology, “grace” is favor that people receive from God without meriting it. A human cannot earn grace, and humans don’t get to gripe when others receive it. (Most Christians, it should shock no one to say, are pretty bad at practicing this, which was Jesus’s whole point in one of his most famous parables, about a prodigal son.)

O’Connor believed in this, and for her, the use of violence in stories like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was a way of grace. “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” she once said of that story. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.”

Race is also a complicated matter in O’Connor’s work, which makes perfect sense for a white American writer living in the South and publishing right on the cusp of the civil rights movement. In 2009, Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker about the ways O’Connor’s work’s confronted and confounded the norms of her readers:

Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world. She was not romantic enough to take Faulkner’s Dilsey view of blacks — as the fulcrum of integrity and compassion. She didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply — and complexly — drew from life.

“For O’Connor, writing about integration was a way of exposing the dangers of clinging to the fiction of power,” Als later notes, while pointing out that even for all that, she struggled to portray black people of the sorts who didn’t fall within her own circles. “Luckily, she rarely tried to cover this ground — probably a prudent decision, given the murky and not altogether constructive works of some of the white liberals who did,” he writes.

That sort of thing scandalized many in O’Connor’s time who had backed away from what grace really might mean for their way of life in a proper, segregated South. And that was sort of her point. She might have been writing to what she called the “Christ-haunted South,” but that didn’t mean they saw eye to eye. As she famously wrote,

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

I rewatched Three Billboards a few months after first seeing it, and now I think I may have been too generous toward it at first by reading it through O’Connor’s lens. I think it lacks her rounded-out vision of humans as subjected to the demands of some kind of divine grace.

The purest vision of grace in the film is Willoughby, and even he has his flaws (especially a proclivity to overlook or laugh off the wrongdoing of some of his officers). But he’s an imperfect man who loves his family and doesn’t seem to hold grudges, and most anything that’s good in the film comes from either him or his influence. He, a man who’s ultimately very mortal, is the grace giver, not God. Three Billboards’ view of the world is essentially humanist, without the presence of the divine.

That renders its failure to grant its black characters humanity especially glaring, and means that Dixon’s move a little closer to the good by the end of the film feels off; there’s no sense of wrong being brought closer to something like the right. In McDonagh’s view of the world, we receive moments of grace only from one another — a worthy thing, to be sure, one that everyone can aspire to despite their own theological commitments, but one that requires more earning. And that may just be what many critics are reacting to: The idea of redemption one can read in the plot doesn’t work even according to the film’s own standards.

I don’t mean to suggest Martin McDonagh (a lapsed Catholic) has no commitments along the lines of O’Connor’s. Everyone sees the world through some theological lens, even if it’s one devoid of any theos. We all have beliefs about good and evil, moral and immoral, sin and punishment and redemption and all of those things.

But I have come to suspect that a story like Three Billboards — with its integration of the grotesque mode and what I believe is not meant to be anything like redemption, but something a lot more like a resignation to how messed up the world is, how imprecise and impossible justice is — only really works very well inside the context of a theistic world, with a cosmic sense of justice derived from some kind of transcendent divinity.

I think McDonagh has it within himself to navigate those more human-centric storytelling waters. (He pulls it off much more successfully, with a deliciously bent sense of justice, in something like In Bruges or his play The Beauty Queen of Leenane.) But if you’re going to drop so many clear clues that you’re shooting for O’Connor’s territory — and then you’re going to grant your ultimately broken characters her moments of grace — you need a stronger sense of where that grace is coming from, and a stronger sense, too, of the people at whose expense it might come. McDonagh doesn’t quite get there. And that hamstrings Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from being what it could have meant for this moment.

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