The other Sunday at the Golden Globes, one of the films that surprised me in how well it did is 3 Billboards. Not because I disliked the movie, but because it was one of the most controversial films of the year. While few debate Frances McDormand's stellar performance, the film's depiction of race in America has been widely critiqued.
In my opinion, the shaky depiction of police brutality in the film made it unworthy of winning Best Screenplay, and potentially Best Picture at the Oscars. This isn't to say that a film must be ideologically perfect to be a good film. In many ways, Three Billboards is a great film, and I loved many aspects of it. However, I believe that when it comes to award shows, the cultural context in which a film is released is a major part of whether it deserves certain awards. Furthermore, if a film seeks to tackle difficult issues, how it tackles these issues should be an aspect of its critique.
The film is advertised as mainly a story about Francis McDormand's character Mildred's campaign to get the corrupt local police department to investigate her daughter's rape and murder. And that is the main focus, but the film also spends a considerable amount of time humanizing these corrupt police officers.
The chief of police, Willoughby, who is originally targeted by the billboards Mildred puts up, ends up being the moral center of the film. His flaws, most obviously his refusal to fire Dixon, the violent, racist cop who allegedly has tortured black people (and who never refutes these allegations), are glossed over because of he is dying of cancer.
There are some very heart-wrenching scenes dealing with this, and I understand and admire McDonagh's desire to show the humanity in the supposed villains of the film, but it comes off a bit cheaply that his illness is the main reason we are supposed to sympathize with him.
Furthermore, his major monologue is the main emotional turning point in the film, and sets him up as the moral center of the film. We are supposed to forgive him for running a police station that is undeniably corrupt, and truly has failed Mildred and everyone else in the town of Ebbing.
The fact that Mildred, who kicks schoolchildren in the balls and tells her daughter she hopes she gets raped, is a less likable character than Willoughby is part of the point of the film: there are no good guys and no bad guys. But her over-the-top anger and his preachiness are a clear choice by the (male) writer and director of the film to villainize a female character and lionize a male character. This is an oversimplification of the film, of course, but it is the impression that it leaves, whether this was an intentional choice or not.
The main controversy about the film, however, has to do with the previously mentioned Dixon. For the first half to three-quarters of the film, he is a completely unlikable character. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and just straight up stupid (sound familiar?). Like Willoughby, however, he is humanized. His redemption arc is triggered by Willoughby's belief in him that despite everything, he is a good person.
Though the idea that everyone has good inside of them waiting to be released is beautiful and an admirable message, this seems like a flimsy excuse for a complete 180 in characterization.
Another aspect of the critique of the film is its treatment of the black people within the town of Ebbing. The victims of Dixon's "torturing" are never named or seen. There are almost no black people shown in the film, period. One of the few, Mildred's colleague Denise, is shown very briefly at the beginning, before she is arrested by Dixon in an effort to make Mildred comply, and then completely forgotten until she reappears, smiling, without another word about what must have been a traumatic experience, knowing what we do about Dixon.
This episode, to me, is the most egregious and troubling example of the lazy writing in the film. Black people as a whole are used in the film the same way cancer is: as a device to further the emotional development of white people in the film. For a film that seeks to explore the failures of law enforcement to deal with citizens' issues, this is quite an oversight.