‘Three Billboards’ is not suffering a backlash: some people just didn’t like it

Film’s failure to score a Best Director Oscar nomination for Martin McDonagh is not necessarily a reaction

We got there a bit sooner this year. In the later stages of the 2017 awards season, as a certain musical appeared to be strolling towards best picture at the Oscars, the digital airwaves buzzed with thousands asking the same question: "Am I the only person who didn't like La La Land?" You could have sold T-shirts by the bushel to the multitudes who felt they were alone in finding Damien Chazelle's harmless film less than transcendent. Apparently unappeased by (or unaware of) its ultimate loss to Moonlight, the anti-La La faction is still expressing its brave opposition.

In 2018 the culprit is Martin McDonagh's divisive Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Like La La Land (and Lenny Abrahamson's Room in 2015), the picture staked a claim when it won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival last September. This matters because a win invariably points towards a best picture nomination. It matters in the current conversation because the vote is taken by everyday film-goers before the critical consensus has set in. Plenty of people dislike La La Land and Three Billboards. But both films play well to amenable audiences.

The muttering didn't really get going until, in an unusually competitive year, Three Billboards swept the recent Golden Globes awards. A film that had been celebrated for centring upon a determined woman of a certain age was now being vilified for its supposedly insensitive attitude to race. When, earlier this week, McDonagh failed to score a best director nomination at the Oscars – a near deathblow for best picture aspirations – we began to wonder if toxicity had properly set in.

Detractors

The explanation will require the unleashing of a few "spoilers". In a performance that even the film's detractors have admired, Frances McDormand plays an angry mid-western woman who refuses to tolerate police inactivity following her daughter's murder. In the course of her provocations, she rubs up against a stupid, racist deputy played by Sam Rockwell. When she calls him a "nigger torturer" he replies that we have to now call it "person-of-colour-torturing" (if you buy a ticket for a McDonagh joint you have to expect this school of word tennis).

More than a few commentators referenced earlier offences by Quentin Tarantino when noting McDonagh's cavalier use of the n-word. "My favourite bad thing about Three Billboards is its ambition to play around with America's ideological and geographical toys," Wesley Morris wrote in a much-discussed piece for the New York Times. But it was Rockwell's apparent redemption at the close that really got tempers riled. In the Daily Beast, Ira Madison III commented: "It's not only an attempt at emotional manipulation that runs cold, but it's also a journey that's played for comedy throughout Three Billboards. Altogether, it's wholly offensive."

In the film’s final act, after hearing a plea for tolerance from beyond the grave, Rockwell undergoes a dizzying transformation. He shrugs off an attack that leaves him with facial scarring. He makes friends with McDormand’s character. They drive off to avenge crime in the manner of a 1970s mismatched-buddy TV show. She’s an angry Mom. He’s a cuddly ex-racist. When they met it was murder. That sort of thing.

Absurdity

For this writer, the sheer absurdity of the transformation – akin to something you might encounter happily in Twin Peaks – rendered talk of "redemption" academic. He scarcely seems to be the same person. Robbie Collin, film critic for the Daily Telegraph, argued that, rather than approaching the character from a realist direction, we should see him as a grotesque. Yes, there is something Dickensian about McDonagh's approach, but, rather than suggesting Fagin before his hanging, Rockwell has to sell us a transformation closer to that which comes over Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

At any rate, arguments for heightened reality have not silenced American commentators who feel that the London-Irishman does not have the local knowledge to attempt such a cross-section of middle-America. Irish critics have been more tolerant of McDonagh's deliberate dialling up of national stereotypes in his celebrated plays. In that case a conversation is being had with literary history. Having one character conspicuously brandish a Flannery O'Connor novel does not have the same effect in Three Billboards. The intellectual atmosphere feels thin.

It is reasonable to have such conversations when a work of art gains such visibility. It is not “a backlash”. Nobody is gathering the villagers and setting light to torches. Yet, in the aftermath of McDonagh’s failure to secure the director’s nod, panicky reactionaries were already declaring that the Social Justice Mob was bossing the Oscars. At least one correspondent (surely writing to the sounds of sinister organ chords) warned me about “identity politics” and suggested the “backlash was orchestrated”. It wasn’t.

And none of you is the only person who disliked Three Billboards.