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Why so many people are furious with Oscar frontrunner 'Three Billboards'

INSIDER logoINSIDER 26/01/2018 acob Shamsian

a man holding a sign: three billboards outside ebbing missouri frances mcdormand orange © Provided by Business Insider Inc three billboards outside ebbing missouri frances mcdormand orange As the Oscar race heats up, a backlash is brewing.

Once largely loved by critics, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" now has a target on its back.

"Three Billboards," directed by Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand, is currently the Oscar frontrunner. It has seven nominations, behind "The Shape of Water" with 13 and "Dunkirk" with eight, but it's already secured important precursor awards, like the Screen Actors Guild best ensemble prize and last year's Toronto International Film Festival's audience award.

People aren't happy about it. Some critics find the movie — about a mother who challenges local police in her small town when they fail to find the person who raped and killed her daughter — as wildly inflammatory about race and generally tone-deaf. In an age of racism, they argue, awarding it the best picture Oscar would be inappropriate and a shame after the top prize went to "Moonlight."

Here's everything you need to know about the backlash for "Three Billboards."

One character is a racist — and gets undeservedly redeemed.

The biggest criticism of "Three Billboards" is about the supporting character, Officer Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who is nominated for an Oscar for his performance.

Dixon is loudly racist, isn't shy with racial slurs, and talks about how he's harmed black suspects in his custody. You'd think a movie would have some measure of criticism when dealing with racist cops, particularly in the age of Black Lives Matter, but it doesn't. Dixon's racism falls into the background, almost as a character quirk, and instead he has a redemption arc when he eventually helps Frances McDormand's character seek justice for her daughter.

a man standing in front of a window: three billboards ebbing missouri © Provided by Business Insider Inc three billboards ebbing missouri The movie treats Nixon's racism as an abstraction: He's dealt with his frustration of his low-income upbringing and overbearing mother by asserting power as a police officer when he can get away with it. But there's no black presence onscreen to reckon with. Late in the movie, his department gets a new police chief, who is a black man. He quickly fires Nixon, leading Nixon to learn the error of his ways, but never becomes a substantial character in his own right. The only black character of note plays a supporting role in a white character's storyline about racism.

And why wasn't Dixon fired earlier for, say, being racist? As Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby explains, "You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs." Critics aren't willing to swallow that, and the movie doesn't interrogate that premise. Furthermore, Willoughby himself is painted as a sort of saintly man with a deep sense of decency. Letting Dixon's racism slide doesn't support that depiction.

a man is walking down the street: three billboards woody harrelson sam rockwell © Provided by Business Insider Inc three billboards woody harrelson sam rockwell The movie makes some jokes about racism and political correctness, but doesn't go anywhere with them. As Wesley Morris wrote for the New York Times: "There’s certainly a place for a white artist to poke, laughingly, at our racial and class messes. (Mel Brooks, for instance, excelled at it.) But Mr. McDonagh doesn’t want to do more than poke."

McDonagh has an inauthentic idea of small-town America.

The title and location of "Three Billboards," Morris notes, makes it seem like the movie is saying something grand about human nature in small-town America. But none of it rings true.

The details seem off. Harrelson's character has an exoticized foreign bride. One character throws someone out a window, another drills a hole in someone's hand, and nothing happened to either of them. The whole idea of shaming the cops with three billboards doesn't ever seem convincing.

a man standing in front of a brick wall talking on a cell phone: martin mcdonagh frances mcdormand three billboards © Provided by Business Insider Inc martin mcdonagh frances mcdormand three billboards It's all incongruous, and ends up feeling hokey rather than have the sharpness of the Coen Brothers, whose movies operate in a similar dark comedy register. These quirks seem more particular to McDonagh, who also directed "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths," than about a real town.

"McDonagh has proven time and again his taste for tee-hee, finger-to-the-mouth naughtiness, so this film’s litany of politically incorrect humor (words bandied about include 'f----t,' 'n----r,' 'c--t,' 'fat little Mexican boys,' and McDonagh’s favorite, if In Bruges is any indication, 'midget') comes across as an all-purpose mannerism of the filmmaker rather than a choice specific to this script and milieu," writes Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky.

a man and a woman sitting at a table: lucas hedges frances mcdormand three billboards © Provided by Business Insider Inc lucas hedges frances mcdormand three billboards Even positive reviews say the movie feels artificially constructed, closer to a play than an immersive movie.

"You can take the playwright out of the theater, but you can’t take the theater out of the playwright," Owen Glieberman wrote for Variety. "[McDonagh] built 'Three Billboards' around the kind of constructed encounters, the carefully layered motifs and metaphors, that are the hallmark of a well-made play. Ebbing is a small town, but in this movie it’s the kind of small town that feels as if it has just nine people in it."

It doesn't need to humiliate Peter Dinklage.

Dinklage has a supporting role in the movie, where he's frequently mocked because he has dwarfism. It's a thankless role that underlines the movie's cruelty.

It's also a bizarre role for Dinklage at this point in his career. Unfavorable depictions of people with dwarfism are nothing new in movies, but why would the star in "Game of Thrones" accept it? While George R. R. Martin's series uses Tyrion Lannister's dwarfism to explain his drive without making him a stereotype, Dinklage's "Three Billboards" character is his entire being.

a man and a woman sitting on a sidewalk: frances mcdormand peter dinklage three billboards © Provided by Business Insider Inc frances mcdormand peter dinklage three billboards "Hollywood’s ability to squander Dinklage’s talents isn’t the worst or only tragedy of the industry’s narrow-mindedness," Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in The Washington Post. "Seeing Dinklage in one of these roles again, despite everything he has accomplished over the past seven years, is one of the most lacerating things about 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.'"

Overall, reviews of the movie is positive.

It's worth noting that while "Three Billboards" has its haters, critics generally liked it. The movie has a 93% positive score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and McDormand's performance is almost universally praised as one of her best.

Still, the movie seems to worsen upon consideration, and enthusiasm for it is fading. Now that the final round of voting for the Oscars is in before the March 4 ceremony, its chances look dimmer. Dampened hype like this matters, as was proven last year when "Moonlight" won best picture while people started souring on "La La Land." Perhaps the best picture winner will be "The Shape of Water" after all. 

Pictures: The complete list of 2018 Oscar nominations

"Call Me By Your Name" 2018 Academy Award Nominations

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