Audiences have been entranced by the audacity of Martin McDonagh’sThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri since the film’s first red band trailer dropped in March and went viral, eventually racking up over 4.5 million views. What was this unapologetic film starring the beloved Frances McDormand as a take-no-shit mother out to avenge the rape and murder of her daughter in small-town America? The dark comedy later prompted an extended standing ovation after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, followed by raucous praise from Toronto audiences who handed it the coveted audience award. (La La Land won the prize in 2016.)
From that point forward, Three Billboards looked unstoppable. It earned a 93 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan called it “energetically demented,” while The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis reveled in McDormand’s “great, unforced naturalism.” Many critics named it to their best-of-2017 lists, and it’s grossed over $70 million worldwide. It landed four Golden Globes, three Screen Actors Guild Awards including best ensemble, and last week was nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and best actress. Not bad for a $12 million film starring a 60-year-old woman.
But the Oscars voting window has also offered a larger platform to the film’s detractors, who find McDonagh’s handling of race in America wanting.
In her November review of the film, Washington Post film critic Alyssa Rosenberg took issue with Sam Rockwell’s racist cop, Dixon, arguing that the “soft-touch” treatment of him undermines the movie’s convictions. Charges of torturing a black prisoner follow the character throughout the film, but are never fully explained or explored. He also throws a man out of a second-story window, loses his job, catches on fire, and then somehow finds redemption through no actual work of his own. (McDonagh, a playwright-turned-filmmaker, has made a career on pitch-black comedies that don’t make a habit of redeeming, well, anyone.) Rockwell has already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance; he is currently up for supporting-actor prizes at the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs.
In December, the Daily Beast’s Ira Madison IIIupped the critique, finding fault with the British-Irish director’s overall outsider perspective toward race in America and the casual racism that permeates the fictional Midwest town.
“Whether it be through malice or ignorance, McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes,” he wrote.
But it was critic Wesley Morris’spiece in The New York Times last month, published five days before the 2018 Oscar-nominations announcement, that seemed to turn the chatter into an actual problem for the film’s best-picture chances, and for its studio, Fox Searchlight. Wrote Morris: “The movie could be about grace and vengeance, but they’re presented as hoary lessons and hokey contrivances . . . There’s no reckoning with anything, no introspection, just escalating mayhem.”
Morris’s article was widely shared on social media, and generated over 400 comments. (Those that were most shared were largely supportive of the film, the Times said.) It didn’t affect the Oscar nominations, since voting closed prior to its publication—but it is a potent piece of writing that went beyond criticism, calling into judgment the voting bodies that have heaped so much praise on the film already. It compared the film’s awards-circuit fast track to ones taken by La La Land and American Sniper. Both Morris and Madison also levied the ultimate critique by equating Three Billboards’ simplistic take on race to that of 2006’s best-picture winner, Crash, which has been pilloried relentlessly as the year the Academy got it really wrong—even by Crash’s own director.
“Oh, believe me—Academy members are watching the movie and paying attention,” said one member who declined to be identified. “It’s not as if 75-year-old white Jewish women living on the west side [of Los Angeles] aren’t woke. They get it.”
Not everyone agrees. Actor—and former Oscar M.C.—Neil Patrick Harristweeted to much attention after the article debuted: “What’s with the annoying, angry article in today’s @nytimes about the movie Three Billboards?” he wrote. “The author writes as if it’s terribleness is fact. Umm, it isn’t and it isn’t. I loved it. Martin McDonagh is rad. So it the cast, the story, the performances. It’s awesome. #odd”
So, what’s a studio to do? Is Three Billboards merely sparking a discussion as art is intended to do, or is it more problematic than that?
Regardless of any controversy, McDormand and Rockwell are still prohibitive favorites in their respective acting categories. Fox Searchlight is currently backing two best-picture contenders: Three Billboards and Guillermo del Toro’sThe Shape of Water. (N.B.: McDonagh didn't land a best-director nomination; del Toro is a favorite in the category.) This past weekend, it expanded McDonagh’s movie into close to 1,500 theaters, trying to take advantage of the film’s seven Oscar noms. And most recently, it appears to have adjusted its marketing campaign, with new posters that replace John Hawkes with character actor Clarke Peters, who is African-American, and who has a small role as the film’s replacement police chief.
“We change our campaigns all the time,” said Michelle Hooper, executive vice president of marketing with Fox Searchlight, explaining that only a small percentage of ads swapped Clarke for Hawkes. Other print advertising, including newspaper ads and billboards and bus benches, featured Clarke and the 10 other cast members from the beginning. “Our films begin as platform releases, and the campaigns change and evolve as the films open and reach more people.”
McDonagh has gone on the defensive too, appearing on the BBC after the nominations were announced to explain his motives—and specifically his treatment of Rockwell’s character. “He’s definitely a racist and a bully, but I wouldn’t say he’s treated sympathetically,” he said. “I was trying to see the hope in all these people, so if you’re saying that’s treating a character sympathetically, to a degree that is. But the point of the film, and the thing I hope people come away with, is the possibility of change in people.”
Some expect the film’s critique to have little bearing on McDormand’s front-runner status for best actress or Rockwell’s bid for supporting actor. “If you do like the film, it’s an actors’ film and you vote for them,” said a veteran Academy member. “You can’t blame a great performance [on] a bad film.”
“Here’s the thing about McDonagh’s movie: there is absolutely no repentance in it at all,” said another Academy member. “Everyone is intractable and in their own world. This is not In the Heat of the Night. This is about rage. The question the Academy voter will ask is, ‘What do these movies make you feel? Which one do you want to celebrate?’ I don’t want to celebrate Three Billboards.”
What critics did agree on, at least after the initial viewing, was McDonagh’s approach to female rage—a force so overwhelming in McDormand’s Mildred Hayes that it permeates every cell of her being, from her clenched jaw to her denim war fatigues she never removes. McDonagh’s outsider gaze is a fair critique, but no one seems to be faulting McDormand for capturing a feeling many in America can relate to at this particular moment.
Added another Academy member, “I think the movie is a bit of a lovely mess, with extraordinary performances from Frances and Sam. And Sam deserves all the credit in the world for making that racist motherfucker sympathetic. People can be unsatisfied with how the movie deals with race, but it doesn’t make the movie racist.”
To be sure, film fans will be arguing the merits of Three Billboards long after the Oscars are announced on March 4. And if the film doesn’t land a coveted best-picture trophy, that could be for myriad reasons that may not all be about race. More likely, the Academy would have dismissed McDonagh’s bleak worldview because it’s a movie that doesn’t make you feel good—like, say, David Fincher’sThe Social Network before it. After all, the de facto position of this voting body is to reward movies that provide some bit of uplift.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:An Intimate Look Inside the 2018 Golden GlobesNicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.