The Oscars are my Super Bowl and this one will be a particularly good one because 2017 was a great year for movies. Movies have always been my first love. As a kid, my dad would take me to the movies every Saturday afternoon and we’d marathon watch as many as we could fit into our schedule before heading home. Those were some of my favorite memories. In high school, my first job was working at the local movie theater. One of the perks was getting to watch all the movies before they were released as well as free movie tickets and concessions for me and my friends anytime I wanted. You know I took full advantage. In graduate school, I dabbled in filmmaking and digital video and spent a few years volunteering for the Maryland Film Festival.
Like many folks, I thought for sure The Shape of Water was the clear frontrunner for Best Picture after I saw it. Not that I was very impressed by the film; it just seemed like the kind of movie that wins lots of awards because it’s “quirky.” And then I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and completely changed my mind. It was not what I was expecting. In fact, this is the kind of movie that works best if you have no prior knowledge about it going in. Also, that title is so benign. Despite it’s bleak subject matter, it’s funny as shit. And instead of a crime drama, it turned out to be a character study. Very rarely is the crime even spoken about. Characters and plot take turns you don’t expect them to take which makes it unpredictable and addictively watchable.(Confession: I ended up seeing Three Billboards four times in the theater — thanks, MoviePass!)
So basic plot synopsis: After several months have passed with zero arrests in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards leading into the town of Ebbing, Missouri, calling out the local police, with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. The titular three billboards read: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” When his second-in-command, Officer Jason Dixon (Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell), an emotionally stunted, abhorrently violent momma’s boy gets involved, drama ensues.
Tonally, the movie feels very much like a Coen brothers film. Frances McDormand even seems to be channeling her character from Fargo. While this film is darkly comedic, the dramatic moments still hit me hard. I was pretty high on Three Billboards for a couple of weeks (obviously, since I ended up seeing it four times) because the writing and the performances were that strong. Frances McDormand is at her very best with no competition for Best Actress. She’s like the John Wayne of this film. Woody Harrelson is excellent as usual and deserving of his Oscar nomination but honestly, it’s Sam Rockwell (also nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this film) that steals the show. His character is the film’s main antagonist — the despicable, dimwitted Officer Jason Dixon — who you start off hating but when his character goes through a transformation, you end up sympathizing with him by the end of the movie, to your own surprise.
Oh, I know it’s polarizing. And I’ve seen the Twitter backlash that happened after Sam Rockwell started cleaning up at all the awards ceremonies, winning Best Supporting Actor for his performance. He’ll most likely continue that run and win big at the Oscars as well. Does he deserve that award? Yes, he most certainly does. Few have the ability to take such a vile character and make him nearly relatable, sympathetic and dare I say it — something of a hero — by the end of the film. By the way, the film is never clear on whether or not Officer Dixon is fully reformed by the end. It simply asks the question: Can a man like that have a change of heart? This is indeed, the big question, isn’t it?
The movie and Dixon’s character made me think about the many ways that liberals are not as open to human reform as many suggest. We have spent the past few years embroiled in callout/takedown culture thanks to social media, but is the point to just punish wrong-doers or to improve society? While most of these callouts have been triumphant achievements in exposing the racism and sexism that our society still glosses over, some of them are toxic and unfair, with various groups jockeying for position at the top of the oppression hierarchy by searching for offenses. We’re getting to the point where seemingly small offenses garner the most extreme vitriol of the internet, where people’s careers are destroyed and their legacy is one of shame, all for public consumption and enjoyment. (Oh sure, I’ll admit it. I’ve willingly participated in some of these callouts.) At a certain point, doesn’t seeking eye-for-an-eye justice become immoral? That is part of what this film asks us to examine: And it’s not race-based. It’s a universally human issue. Joe Sommerlad of The Independent pointed out that “there are many Jason Dixons out there [and director] Martin McDonagh creates a valuable opportunity to interrogate their point of view through the prism of pulp art.”
One of the main themes of the movie is anger and revenge and at what point does it all end? When is the cycle of revenge ever enough? At the end of the movie, both Mildred Hayes and Officer Jason Dixon have become somewhat weird friends and are on their way to Idaho to hunt down and kill a man who they believe is a rapist even though a DNA test proved that he was not involved with the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter. The movie ends with the two of them questioning whether they should go through with it or not. My interpretation is that they don’t. The truth is that when you seek revenge, or in this case, catharsis, it becomes like an insatiable, cyclical hunger. You will never be able to fill that void. And a lot of people have that damaging void.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, when I watched the movie, I kept thinking to myself: “This isn’t about race; I wish the dissenters would shut up.”
It’s strange for me to think that because usually, I’m on the other side of that argument. I don’t think this movie is primarily about a white reckoning with race. It’s just a movie about three people trying to reconcile how they handle their anger after tragedy, but everyone who hated it wants so desperately to make it about race.
Does art have a responsibility to be a moral medium? While I don’t think McDonagh set out to make a movie about social justice, I don’t think it’s socially irresponsible either. Movies can REFLECT pockets of society and aspects of individual characters without completely moralizing them. Not all tales are made to be socially corrective. It is possible to just simply show.
Sympathizing with Officer Jason Dixon’s “redemption” arc is not the same as approving of racism or giving the benefit of the doubt to all racist whites. Yes, adding small details about his life humanizes him, as does his eventual embrace of forgiveness and love. So what? It’s called developing a character. This film is, after all, a character study. Yes, his narrative revolves around all white people. So what? It’s a white people story. Let’s be honest. The only way you can have a story that doesn’t revolve around race is to cast it with actors of nearly all the same ethnicity. When you introduce characters of color into whiteness, the story automatically becomes about race in the viewer’s mind, even if subconsciously. This is not a movie about police brutality and it’s not a movie about race relations in America no matter how hard dissenters want to make it out to be. Yes, the movie avoids the topic of race altogether. Again, so? Everyone knows now that once you introduce the topic of race to a film, there is no way out of that conversation.
No one film should be expected to live up to everyone’s expectations of inclusivity and diversity, especially when the story doesn’t call for it. By the way, I read through the backlash tweets and as to be expected, 99% of these detractors didn’t even watch the movie. It’s clear that they just found yet another controversy to jump on and yet another thing to boycott.
If you’re looking for a movie that’s about social justice and race, I recommend watching something else. There are plenty of them out there. The rest of us will enjoy this story for the darkly humorous, emotionally harrowing journey that it is. It’s not a racist movie. I’ve heard that if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri wins big at the Oscars this year, there will be a big backlash against it. Meh…maybe. If there is, it will be for all the wrong reasons.