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Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormvà in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

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Frances McDormvà & Sam Rockwell at the premiere of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at the Toronkhổng lồ 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 & critics began khổng lồ 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 phối in Missouri in 2017 that features an openly racist cop who dances around the n-word and has tortured a blaông chồng man in police custody.

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

But what’s happened with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t fall neatly inkhổng lồ any of those categories. “Backlash” can simply amount khổng lồ 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 khổng lồ 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 và 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 khổng lồ McDonagh’s film, scrambling its internal xúc tích.

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

Frances McDorm& in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Fox Searchlight Note: It’s impossible to lớn 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 lớn 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 và stirs up the town, Dixon goes on a warpath of sorts, trying to lớn bully the billboard company into lớn getting the signs removed và Mildred inlớn backing off.

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

By the over of the film, Mildred and Dixon have sầu 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 điện thoại tư vấn a “likable” character — her cruel treatment of James (Peter Dinklage), who’s just trying khổng lồ take her on a date, is especially wince-inducing — but she’s a grieving mother and an ass-kicker và certainly a relatable character for many viewers. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s sharp as a taông xã và 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 Osoto nomination, she seems lượt thích 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 & a loser who still lives with his verbally abusive mother và almost failed out of school. He’s obviously an idiot, a screw-up & an alcoholic who can’t control his impulses & turns to lớn violence far, far too quickly for a cop (or anyone, really).

Sam Rockwell & Sandy Martin in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Fox Searchlight He’s also an unabashed racist, who explodes at Mildred when she taunts hlặng for torturing a blaông xã man, & throughout the film his matter-of-fact belief that blachồng 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 lớn this characterization, given the state’s history of police brutality toward people of color, particularly in Ferguson.

Dixon, và 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 lớn feel about Dixon. We’re introduced khổng lồ hyên ổn as a caricature calculated khổng lồ offover, the cop who tortured a blaông chồng man in custody, who gets drunk và threatens people, who cares about people fearing the police more than things like justice and public safety. The only person who seems khổng lồ see anything good in Dixon is Willoughby, who tells him in a letter that he is a good man “deep down” — & 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 lớn vày with redemption

Where the film’s fans and its detractors seem lớn 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 lớn something more like an antagonist in the over, while Dixon undergoes some kind of transformation. The movie takes pains khổng lồ show that some (not all, but definitely some) of his blatant bigotry và general awfulness comes from his upbringing, particularly his mother (Sandy Martin), who denigrates hlặng 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 inkhổng lồ action. It turns out the man isn’t the rapist, but Mildred & Dixon, reasoning that he clearly raped somebody toàn thân, set out somewhat ruefully khổng lồ kill hyên ổn anyhow. (It isn’t clear, from the kết thúc 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 khổng lồ redeem Dixon without asking hlặng to vày anything but the most basic work toward that redemption.

Frances McDorm&, 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 McDorm& hunt for her daughter’s rapist,” Ira Madison III wrote at the Daily Beast. “He discovers potential information by happenstance, but we’re supposed lớn believe sầu he has such a moral compass that he springs into lớn action.”

“It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist và abusive sầu 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 ... & then Three Billboards seems khổng lồ ask audiences to lớn forgive & forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse, & sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have sầu 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 chiến dịch of quiet terror and find comtháng ground with hyên. Nope.”

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

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Not everyone read Dixon’s arc as redemptive sầu. (Truthfully, it had not occurred to lớn 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 và disgust come h& in hand 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 sầu 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 lớn answer when it comes to lớn situations like these; what you see in a work of art has everything khổng lồ bởi with who you are và what you bring lớn the work, and as I wrote in December, there’s a very real sense in which notoàn thân ever sees the same movie.

But what is certain about Three Billboards is that if this many people saw Dixon’s arc as redemptive sầu — và if we take the most charitable view, that it wasn’t intended to trivialize the experiences of abused and tortured black characters in order lớn 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 blaông chồng 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 khổng lồ 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 lớn have crash-landed inlớn a setting he doesn’t really underst& và didn’t particularly care to lớn learn about before he tried to lớn mimic it onscreen.

“McDonagh’s attempts khổng lồ translate the working-class Irish clichés of his previous writing inlớn America’s history of tension between White & blachồng 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 blachồng 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 sầu 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 is a rage that’s exhilarating lớn witness, it’s a rage that’s not available to lớn everyone. Just as not everyone in Ebbing can clayên ổn the protection of being considering ‘good,’ we still don’t live sầu in a world where everyone gets lớn be angry.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri only works on a màn chơi lớn which its own universe doesn’t hew

As a critic, và 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 muốn Christians who think seriously about literature. Caleb Landry Jones’s character, who runs the billboard company, is reading “A Good Man Is Hard khổng lồ Find” when Mildred first shows up in his office. Even without that tell, it would have sầu been obvious: The device of a phối of billboards và 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 sầu read her writing in books like Mystery and Manners và her letters in The Habit of Being. It’s also the key khổng lồ her work. As I wrote in my reviews,

In O’Connor’s South and in Ebbing, Missouri, the world is wild & violent, a gothic mid-space suspended in a creaky old town located somewhere between heaven và 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 & 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 lớn Find,” about a family on a road trip who are murdered by a notorious serial killer called the Misfit, and to lớn 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 kết thúc well. But it’s there all the same.

Frances McDorm& và 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 lớn gripe when others receive sầu it. (Most Christians, it should shochồng 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, & for her, the use of violence in stories like “A Good Man Is Hard khổng lồ Find” was a way of grace. “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality & preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” she once said of that story. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will vì chưng the work.”

Race is also a complicated matter in O’Connor’s work, which makes perfect sense for a Trắng American writer living in the South và 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 và confounded the norms of her readers:

Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition lớn whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world. She was not thắm thiết enough to take Faulkner’s Dilsey view of blacks — as the fulcrum of integrity & 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 khổng lồ portray blachồng people of the sorts who didn’t fall within her own circles. “Luckily, she rarely tried khổng lồ cover this ground — probably a prudent decision, given the murky and not altogether constructive sầu works of some of the Trắng 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 lớn 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 lớn assume that it does not, then you have lớn make your vision apparent by shochồng — khổng lồ 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 sầu 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, và 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 & doesn’t seem lớn hold grudges, & most anything that’s good in the film comes from either hyên 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 khổng lồ grant its black characters humanity especially glaring, & means that Dixon’s move a little closer to lớn the good by the over of the film feels off; there’s no sense of wrong being brought closer lớn something lượt thích the right. In McDonagh’s view of the world, we receive moments of grace only from one another — a worthy thing, to lớn be sure, one that everyone can aspire to lớn 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 lớn the film’s own standards.

I don’t mean lớn 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 và evil, moral & immoral, sin và punishment và redemption and all of those things.

But I have sầu come lớn suspect that a story like Three Billboards — with its integration of the grotesque mode and what I believe is not meant khổng lồ be anything like redemption, but something a lot more lượt thích a resignation to lớn how messed up the world is, how imprecise và 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 lượt thích In Bruges or his play The Beauty Queen of Leenane.) But if you’re going lớn drop so many clear clues that you’re shooting for O’Connor’s territory — and then you’re going to lớn grant your ultimately broken characters her moments of grace — you need a stronger sense of where that grace is coming from, & 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.