Three Billboards is a film without a social agenda, and that is okay

Craig Watkins, Crier Staff

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Martin McDonagh’s biting black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been mopping awards shows’ floors with its competitors and is in third place for Oscar nominations.

Seen upon release in November as a cathartic punch at abusive authority during the height of the #MeToo movement, this story of a mother’s search for justice after her daughter’s rape and murder is now being reevaluated as it steals the stage from other powerful films looking to make a difference in America.

The biggest issue many take with Three Billboards is its seeming redemption of a racist and violent character.

Without going into too much detail, Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell’s character Officer Dixon, a racist cop and drunkard, has a moment where he sharply changes his ways and decides to do good for the remainder of the film.

Other grievances that have been brought up include complaints that the film did not give enough focus to its minority characters, including African Americans and a dwarf, and criticism of a joke that implies getting rid of all racist cops would only leave homophobic ones (it’s funnier when Woody Harrelson says it).

My thought on the biggest controversy is that despite what many say, the film never asks its audience to forgive Dixon. Sure, he makes sacrifices for others towards the end of the movie, but that never stopped me from thinking about how horrible his actions beforehand were.

Even if McDonagh did want people to like Dixon at the end, they can do this without supporting a racist character. It is never really explained what happens in his head when he decides to change the way he treats people, so there is nothing wrong with interpreting that moment as his rejection and hatred of his former self.

The strongest way to dispute the outrage, though, is to look at who he decides to help. Despite earning actress Frances McDormand a Golden Globe, not everything protagonist Mildred Hayes does is good.

She is infinitely entertaining and often says and does the things we all wish we could, but she is morally all over the place, often acting just as violently as Dixon. So supporting her is not necessarily a good thing.

Who does that leave the audience to root for then? Well, nobody really. Watching Three Billboards is like watching a fistfight from the other side of the room. Nobody asks you for sympathy and it is your choice whether or not you want to share it.

Humans in Three Billboards are animals; they are gripping to watch, and bring out all kinds of emotions, but ultimately have no bearing on the observer’s life.

The problems many have with the film then seem to come from the fact that it makes no effort to advance society. To turn the controversy on its head, I will now take a look at Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar frontrunner The Shape of Water (disclaimer: I adore and possibly prefer this movie).

The Shape of Water is notable for featuring minorities in 1960’s America. Each main character is uniquely lovable and all of the antagonists are equally diverse in how detestable they are. With how beautifully crafted each character is, it seems almost offensive what the film does with Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins’s Giles, an aging gay man.

Throughout the first half of the movie, the audience is shown scenes of Giles’s struggling love life to break up the main plot. It is sweet, tragic, and then suddenly over.

After a certain encounter, Giles tells protagonist Eliza the equivalent of, “There’s no room to resolve my issues, so let’s get on with your story.”

There was little reason to stop Giles’s story where Del Toro did. While it did not necessarily need a happy ending (it was the ‘60’s after all), leaving it up in the air when Eliza and the sea creature got full conclusions felt inappropriate.

Though Giles got the privilege of being pretty thoroughly explored, he was still sidelined for the film’s second half seemingly because it would have drawn out the main plot, not dissimilarly from how minorities were set aside in Three Billboards. The difference is the lack of objections from the public.

I could not find any issues with Three Billboards. While it might be about justice, revenge, love, and hate, it does not explicitly stand for any of those things. It is a film for the sake of being a film: a two-hour escape where you can explore any feeling you want with no real-world consequence.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water are in theaters. The Academy Awards will be held on March 4.