‘Billboards’ Not 100: A Race Problem In The Oscar Race

Every year, there’s one: an awards season frontrunner I don’t like very much.

I rarely hate the movie — well, not at first. I found some degree of pleasure in films like The King’s Speech, La La Land, Birdman, and Argo the first time I saw them, though my reviews were mixed. But then the kudos are laid on really thick, the movie is pitched as a serious contender for the biggest prizes of the year, and little by little, it slides further and further down my list.

It’s not out of spite. The more everyone else calls out how amazing it is, the more the movie’s flaws bubble up in my head. The louder their praise grows, the louder my gripes snipe back. It isn’t just me — lots of movies are over-awarded in hindsight, and people get awfully bitter about them. Sooner or later, the frontrunner’s flaws loom so large, I wonder how anyone could possibly like it. Here is my annual hit piece on that movie.

First, the caveats: I enjoyed Martin McDonaugh’s first film, In Bruges. I wanted to like this one. I tend to enjoy edgy comedies when they’re done right. I was in a perfectly fine mood when I saw this movie, and despite some flaws, I was more or less on board with it for a half an hour or so.

Now, my 12 biggest gripes with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, ranked from least to most terrible.

(Beware — it’s rotten with spoilers.)

1. Frances McDormand is overrated… (in this movie).

McDormand is getting raves for her performance, which consists almost entirety of snappy profanity. The insults she slings are funny, and if anyone is going to play this cranky character, it might as well be Frances McDormand. She’s as good as anyone could be in the role.

But that role is awfully flat. Mildred is one note, from beginning to end. She’s mean and enraged because her daughter was raped and murdered and the police couldn’t catch the guy… right? No, wait — in flashbacks, when her daughter is alive, she is just as mean and just as enraged. If there’s a difference in her before and after, it’s unknown to us.

Mildred’s ex-husband says she was always difficult. It’d be interesting to examine why Mildred was so pissed off before the brutal murder of her offspring, and how that anger is or isn’t different now. I don’t need lessons learned, tears shed, and closure — I don’t mind an antiheroine, or a protagonist lacking a character arc, should it serve a purpose.

But what’s the purpose? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is being touted as a movie with a strong female lead. What it actually is is a movie with a profane female lead, who, halfway through, stops being proactive and hands the story over to a white dude. Saying “cunt” isn’t the same thing as being a “strong female.”

What roles do women play in this story? One is here to be raped and murdered. Another is here to be put in jail. One is here to grieve for her husband. Three Billboards doesn’t seriously consider the sexual violence against women it splashes up on its titular billboards. Mildred’s daughter is an afterthought — we learn nothing about her. She’s not even a character.

Mildred herself spends more energy harassing the police than she does mourning her daughter. That’s a fine place for a character like Mildred to start, because it gives her room to go on a journey. But she never does. McDormand takes one drastic action somewhere in the second act, then sits on the sidelines while McDonaugh cedes the movie to the dumb, funny white guy. Mildred’s billboards, supposedly the film’s focal point, have zero effect on the plot. McDonaugh’s idea of a “strong female” is one who’s pissed off and swears a lot, but still lets the men handle all the work. Her billboards essentially say, “MEN… PLEASE DO YOUR WORK.” Well, we’ve already established that the police in Ebbing are useless, so maybe she should do something else? Gather some evidence, follow leads… alert people about the weirdo who just showed up in town and claimed credit for the murder, maybe?

Mildred is just an ordinary citizen, but she doesn’t have to be successful at solving the crime, so long as she’s trying something. But she’s not. She shows a lot more interest in shaming the police than actually finding justice for her daughter’s murder. And that might be interesting, too, if the plot followed that to any real conclusion.

2. The “comedy” consists almost entirely of insults.

Here’s a game: watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and pause every time you laugh. Note if the humor hinged on a sharp-tongued character demeaning someone’s race, sexuality, gender, or dwarfism. Remove all those lines from the movie. Is anything funny?

McDonagh’s brand of humor consists solely of brash insults and artful profanity. Some of it’s funny, but it also gets old. It’d be great if it was Mildred spewing all this rage, because that would be in character. But we get so much of it from so many other characters that it dilutes Mildred’s sourness.

McDonagh has clearly studied at the Quentin Tarantino School of Screenwriting, and his dialogue can be awfully amusing. But is it still funny, in 2017, to spend a couple hours spouting the kinds of ignorance and intolerance you can get from scrolling through Twitter? (They’ll be grammatically incorrect and far less clever, but the sentiment is the same.) Blatant racism and related offenses are far from “shocking” in 2017 — and I, for one, am weary of writers who keep dipping into this well. It’s lazy.

3. Doesn’t this CGI deer look awful?

I can over a fake-looking deer in a better movie. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. (There sure are a lot of CGI deer in movies.) But since this CGI deer serves as an emotional climax for Mildred, who seems to think deer love emotional exposition, I was pretty fed up with this cliche in a movie that otherwise avoided them.

4. Martin McDonagh is not American.

People can and should make movies set in places they’re not from, but I’m not convinced Martin McDonagh should. He’s obviously going for a heightened depiction of Americana, but even through that lens, so many things feel… off. This movie convinced me that Martin McDonagh doesn’t “get” America. In a way, I don’t blame him — these days, I don’t really “get” America either. But McDonagh tries to tackle very charged, very political topics like his research began and ended with European coverage of American problems. This leads to larger problems I’ll address later, but it also makes everything feel like a warped funhouse mirror image of low-income America. That would be fine, if this were a “fun” movie. But though he graces troubling topics, there’s no wisdom or truth to be found in the way they’re depicted.

6. “People come and go so quickly here.”

That line is from a movie that takes place in Kansas, not Missouri, but close enough. Supposedly, this is a small town of the “where everybody knows your name” variety, but characters disappear from this film with no consequence or impact on what happens.

Sheriff Abercrombie comes out of nowhere, does next to nothing, and disappears from the movie. Red, the ad salesman played by Caleb Landry Jones, gets one scene after he’s thrown out a window — I guess we’re not supposed to think about him again. As James, Peter Dinklage is a welcome presence, and his dinner date with Mildred is one of the film’s best scenes. But then he, too, is forgotten.

It’s okay to have characters serve their purpose and exit stage right, of course, but in Three Billboards, almost every character does this. (Especially black people… but more on that later.) A man who becomes the prime suspect for the murder arrives in Ebbing… why? He menaces Mildred at work for absolutely no reason. Why does he go out of his way to harass her? It’s unclear how he knows who she is, or what happened to her daughter, if he’s not from around here. The man stays in Ebbing just long enough to be an extra-conspicuous red herring, then off he goes, again.

Strangest of all is Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Lucas Hedges. Would Mildred’s character be any different if she did not have a son? Arguably, her rage and isolation would be even more powerful if her daughter were an only child and she had nothing left. But Robbie’s a well-written character, until he vanishes about halfway through the movie. The choice Mildred makes at the end of Three Billboards makes her a pretty terrible mother, which would be fine, if the movie didn’t forget she was still someone’s mother. Did Mildred forget? Did McDonagh forget? Did Lucas Hedges just not show up to work on the last day of shooting? Did a whole bunch of footage get left in the back of an Uber? Whatever the reason, the randomness of supporting characters’ entry and exits make them virtually useless.

7. Why does a hot Australian live in the middle of Bumfuck?

This is a low-level complaint, but it sure did bother me. Fictional Ebbing is presented to us as a heightened portrayal small town life in the American Midwest.It is populated by the kinds of characters you’d expect to find there. We have the dowdy, bitter ex-housewife, the racist cop, the trite pastor, the well-meaning sheriff… and the well-meaning sheriff’s much younger, very glamorous Australian wife?

How the hell did this woman land in Ebbing, Missouri? You might this kind of marriage in LA, but it’s a lot less plausible in Ebbing, Missouri. We get zero explanation for why Anne is in this town, with this man. It’s hard to believe she’d ever even visit here, and Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby sure doesn’t seem well-traveled.

Sidenote: this character’s main function is to praise Woody Harrelson for his nice cock. But please, let’s give another Oscar to a straight dude because his script is so “original.”

8. Awkward music and tonal shifts galore.

That pretty much sums it up — this movie has a lot of awkward tonal shifts between drama and comedy and suspense, and the music highlights them in a way that only makes the jarring transitions more obvious.

9. The entire third act hinges on a wild coincidence.

A letter from a dead cop that essentially says “don’t be racist” convinces Sam Rockwell’s Dixon not to be racist. Or something like that. Actually, we’re never given any convincing motive for Dixon’s sudden shift from asshole to hero. Dixon, who is shown throughout the film to be a terrible cop, suddenly become a very good cop — was it just the racism that made him incompetent at his job? Dixon pulls the Sherlock Holmes-ian move of staging a bar fight to swipe his suspect’s DNA, even though he’s never displayed a lick of intelligence before this point. Whatever.

If you asked me how not to introduce a red herring into a pseudo-mystery movie, this would be my reply: “Whatever you do, just don’t have a psycho-looking dude pop up out of nowhere, say something incredibly evil to main character, and then disappear until it’s time for him to loudly confess to a rape and murder that is unrelated to but exactly the same as the rape and murder that recently happened in this tiny, otherwise peaceful town.”

Seriously, who is this guy? Why does he, a rapist and killer, seek out the mother of another girl who was similarly raped and killed, and pretend he’s the one who did it? Why does he decide to tell his (new?) friend in Ebbing, Missouri all about his crime in a totally public venue, right next to where a cop who is trying to solve the case is conveniently sitting? Furthermore, what’s the point of having Mildred encounter this man at all? Mildred is desperate enough to find her daughter’s killer that she blows all her savings on a billboard advertising the police department’s incompetence, but when a guy pops out of nowhere and says, “Oh, hey, I probably raped and killed your daughter,” she doesn’t report it to the police, investigate further, or tell anyone what happened? Instead, an unusual coincidence drops into Dixon’s lap, and Mildred has nothing to do with it. It’d be a lot more believable if Mildred had said, “You know, that creepy out-of-towner who just stopped by to chat about raping and murdering my daughter might just be the guy who did it!”, and Dixon was investigating him for that reason. But nope.

Coincidences in movies can work when done artfully, especially when they have a sense of cosmic irony. This is not an artful coincidence.

10. This movie has a pretty bad “magical Negro” problem.

We spend a lot of time with Willoughby, the white sheriff Mildred calls out for failing to bring her daughter’s killer to justice. Then, a black sheriff named Abercrombie comes to town, and he’s nothing more than a plot point. His sole purpose is to fire Dixon (ironic, ’cause he’s black!) and then he goes away until it’s time to deliver some exposition about the Wildly Coincidental Red Herring.

I can let that one go. There are three other “significant” black characters in Three Billboards. The first is the suspect that Dixon tortures while in custody. We never see this, we just hear a lot of jokes about it. So I guess it’s meant to be… funny?

Then there’s Jerome, who pops up after Mildred’s billboards are burned with extra copies of the art. He saves the day! And then he goes away.

There’s also Denise, who is Mildred’s… friend? Actually, we have no idea what this friendship could be based on, but whatever. Denise exists in this movie for one reason only, and that’s to be arrested. Dixon throws her in jail for marijuana possession, and he does it gleefully because he’s racist and also because it pisses off Mildred.

Or does it? Mildred isn’t bothered by the fact that Denise is in jail, and neither is the movie. We never see her in jail or learn any consequences of this. She pops up a few days later, no as cheerful as ever, no thanks to Mildred, who is the reason she was thrown in jail and also did nothing to try and get her out. Apparently, Denise is the Negro so magical, she doesn’t even mind being tossed in prison for a few days to benefit a white person! What a great friend.

These four black characters exist solely to be plot points for the two Caucasian antiheroes. In a movie with such specifically drawn, unusual (white) characters as Mildred, Dixon, James, Willoughby, Red, and several more, Jerome and Denise are curiously devoid of personalities and any wants or will of their own. The worst of it is when Jerome and Denise meet. Without a word, they smile at each other, and next thing you know, they’re on a date. We don’t actually hear any of their dialogue on this date, because no white people are listening. The only thing connecting these characters is that they’re both black. So, naturally, it’s love at first sight.

Now, it might seem like I’m being too hard on Three Billboards. Can’t a movie just have black characters who aren’t that important? Does every film have to grapple with race?

The answers to those questions are 1) yes and 2) no… unless that movie decides to center on a likable racist.

11. Wouldn’t it be neat if, one year after Moonlight won Best Picture in Trump’s America, the Academy lauded a movie that turns a racist white cop who abuses black people into its hero?

Sam Rockwell is one of the frontrunners in the Best Supporting Actor race. There’s nothing wrong with Rockwell’s performance — he plays Dixon as written in McDonagh’s screenplay delightfully. But what the fuck are we supposed to make of this character?

The fact that Dixon previously tortured a black man in custody is played mostly for laughs, since the first thing they teach you at the Quentin Tarantino School of Screenwriting is that the “N” word is funny. Then, Dixon mocks a guy for being gay (who probably isn’t) and throws him out a window, which is played as a combination of funny, cool, and distressing. That’s when Three Billboards begins to take a nasty turn, glamorizing Dixon’s unhinged bad boy, though not yet condoning his behavior. For the first half of the movie, Dixon is despicable enough to be a suitable antagonist for Mildred. He’s a lazy, racist, homophobic oaf who deserves all the scorn he gets in this movie, and more on top of it.

But by the end, Three Billboards becomes an unlikely buddy movie, without ever addressing Dixon’s racism and various other vile qualities. Just like several supporting characters in the film, this storyline is completely forgotten.

What is Dixon’s character arc? He tortures a black suspect, nearly kills an innocent gay man, while spouting plenty of racism, homophobia, and other bile along the way. Then, he loses his mentor, which is unrelated to the other events in the film. Dixon gets fired, much later than he should have. Then he has a near death experience in a fire… and suddenly becomes a different character? He’s much smarter, a lot nicer, and stops being so blatantly racist — overnight. Now, he’s the kind of guy we kinda root for in movies.

Three Billboards doesn’t exactly glorify its racist cop. Both Dixon and Mildred end the film as antiheroes, though McDonagh is pretty clearly rooting for them to take out a sleazy murderer who deserves to be taken out. It pits Dixon against a mustache-twirling slimeball as if to say, “Hey, next to this rapist killer, the guy who beats up black people isn’t so bad!” The Dixon in the end of the movie is pretty damn charming.

In absence of any other character arc, Three Billboards is really Dixon’s story. Mildred begins the story fed up and willing to do seemingly anything to bring her daughter’s killer to justice. She ends it in the exact same state of mind. Dixon is the active character, the one who undergoes a transformation. Though McDormand is great, his is the real standout performance. After tossing Molotov cocktails into the police station around the midway point, Mildred doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. She doesn’t even tell people that there’s a new creep in town who’s claiming he raped her daughter. Dixon does it all on his own.

Mildred doesn’t like Dixon at the end of this film. But without a word, she’s ready to move past the fact that he’s done horrible things to innocent people and uses the fact that he’s a straight white guy to torment anyone who’s not. Come on, Mildred! How much better is this psycho than the guy who killed your girl?

Dixon is the kind of despicable cop who beat Rodney King, who shot Oscar Grant and countless others. Three Billboards has a laugh at that, then hopes you forget it. Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is played as a sympathetic character — a sympathetic character who permits race-motivated violence in a town that’s entirely under his purview. Like a lot of these cops, Dixon gets off scot-free in Three Billboards. He gets the film’s triumphant, climactic moment. And he’s the one who gets the hero’s journey.

When you look at what Mildred actually does in the film, it’s almost nothing. And in the end, instead of standing up for what’s right or taking action, she teams up with the biggest jerk in town. It’s played as an upbeat conclusion.

What it comes down to is this — it’s a really bad idea to make light of police brutality against African-Americans if the only black characters in your movie are window dressing.

12. Seriously. If this movie wins Oscars, it’ll go down as one of the Academy’s biggest embarrassments.

Gone With The Wind was considered progressive in its time. So was its Best Supporting Actress award for Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. Now, we see it as an important stepping stone — and also, a little sad that the first black actor to win an Oscar had to do so in a movie that underplays slavery.

Twelve years after it won Best Picture, a lot of people find Crash problematic in a similar way. That’s another debate for another time. Say what you will about Crash — at least it decided to broach racism by including a lot of people of color as pivotal characters.

None of this movie’s racial blind spots are so bad on their own. In aggregate, they’re a huge problem. In 2017, with Black Lives matter and #OscarsSoWhite and Nazi rallies and Get Out as a frontrunner, it’s shocking that Three Billboards hasn’t been called out more for what it is.

It’s shocking that, in the same year Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit deftly grappled with men in uniform committing violence against black men and white women, it stands to get zero Oscar nods, while Three Billboards is the toast of the town. This is a mistake. Three Billboards isn’t “about” police brutality the same way Detroit is, but the fact that it’s an incidental plot point is exactly my problem. If McDonagh wasn’t ready to take the subject seriously, he shouldn’t have put it in his movie.

One day, we’ll look back and laugh about how the Academy nominated films so diametrically opposite as Get Out and Three Billboards in the same year. We’ll shake our heads that the all-white, feel good movie about a racist cop walked away with a couple of Oscars, while Detroit wasn’t even nominated. One day, we’ll see it for what it was — one step forward with Moonlight, two steps back with Three Billboards.

Until then? Enjoy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri while you can.

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