Editor’s note: This piece contains plot spoilers.
People liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, at least at first. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the movie grossed a tidy $38 million at the box office and earned near-universal praise from critics in its early weeks. Last week, it won the Golden Globe for best picture; Sam Rockwell won the award for best supporting actor. But now, the success is engendering an increasingly loud backlash, as critics pounding their keyboards declare that the movie’s portrayal of race and racism is problematic.
The film tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and her effort to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter. The case has gone cold at the Ebbing, Mo., police department, so Hayes, undeterred, buys three billboards outside the town and puts a message on them demanding to know why police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has not tracked her daughter’s murderer down. “It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes,” Hayes tells the local news, a reference to officer Jason Dixon’s (Rockwell) having tortured a black suspect in police custody. Willoughby kills himself but keeps the reason for his suicide — terminal pancreatic cancer — a secret. So it is the indefatigable but tone-deaf Hayes whom the townspeople blame, especially Dixon, who arrests her black friend and throws the man who sold her the billboards out of a window.
The major complaint is worth some consideration: that McDonagh gives Jason Dixon, the racist police officer played by Rockwell, a redemption arc, and that an equivalence is drawn between Dixon and Hayes. McDonagh, the critics argue, is suggesting a similarity between two characters whose sins are different in kind. Marc Bernardin wrote in the Guardian that “we are asked to forgive Dixon” not because of righteous actions of his own but because he is “punished.” K. Austin Collins called Dixon’s redemption “unearned” in The Ringer. And Zeba Blay wrote in the Huffington Post that he is shown to be “a good man at heart, an idiot who doesn’t know any better,” which “offers a catharsis for the white viewer who can’t or won’t deal with true nuance.”
After Dixon is fired from the police force by Willoughby’s stoic replacement (Clarke Peters) for arresting Hayes’s friend and defenestrating the ad man, the film swiftly muddies the waters. We see him return home. He lives with his reactionary, alcoholic mother, who badgers him for having submitted to a black man. Could she be the root of his racism, his rage? Can generational conditioning be transcended, or at least escaped? Later, Dixon returns to the police station to collect his things and, while reading a letter Willoughby wrote him urging Dixon to resist anger and favor love, Hayes lights the police station on fire. She believed the building was empty, but she nearly burns Dixon alive. Yet when he emerges from the station with third-degree burns, he does so with the case files for Hayes’s daughter in hand, risking his life to keep the investigation alive. The redemption of this supposedly irredeemable man is under way.
But Dixon’s is hardly a standard redemption arc. After recovering from his burns, the ex-officer overhears a man in a bar bragging about raping a young girl. The details sound suspiciously familiar to Hayes’s daughter’s case, so Dixon scratches the man’s face to procure his DNA (and is beaten savagely in the process). Dixon tells Hayes he might have solved the case — but the man is apparently not the murderer, and there is no quick justice. Nonetheless, the two main characters strike up a rapport — and mull the idea of taking revenge: The man in the bar still raped someone, after all. The film ends with the two driving to the man’s house in Montana, rifles packed in the trunk, unsure whether they will commit the act of vigilante murder but apparently getting along.
No charitable reviewer could conclude, as Blay does, that Dixon was a good man beneath it all. By the end, he takes cues from Hammurabi, not Kant. McDonagh himself tells Variety, “He’s still the a**hole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it, he’s seen that he needs to change.” Yet it must be admitted that McDonagh suggests that Dixon and Hayes are more alike than they seemed at the outset of the film. If Dixon is flawed, so is Hayes, which Sean Fennessey correctly identifies in a sober-minded piece for The Ringer as “a complicated, vexing character pivot” for the rogue cop who once tortured an innocent black suspect. McDonagh forces the viewer to confront a world where everyone has his flaws. In a film filled with flawed but complicated people, then, it seems strange that critics are so annoyed that Dixon is not a one-note villain.
McDonagh refuses the juvenile temptation to replace moral complexity with bright, blinking lights pointing to the good and the evil.
Part of the annoyance is a performance, to be sure. But part of it seems to owe to a disappointment that McDonagh did not interrupt the film with a voiceover, Scorsese-style: Torturing and unlawfully imprisoning black civilians is a heinous thing to do. Critics argue that Dixon’s racist history goes unpunished, absolved. In our increasingly didactic culture, where the heroes and villains are spelled out in no uncertain terms, showing a bad man doing good things might seem like approval. Of course, to suggest that because the film does not revolve around Dixon’s heinousness it lets him off the hook is preposterous. McDonagh refuses the juvenile temptation to replace moral complexity with bright, blinking lights pointing to the good and the evil. “That ambiguity,” McDonagh tells the Los Angeles Times, “is exactly what I was going for.”
And progressives have trouble countenancing the possibility of moral ambiguity. To these critics, Dixon ought to be a simple villain, neatly reduced to his only salient attribute: racism. McDonagh instead depicts a world where the inhabitants are messy, complex people, where even benighted racists are capable of doing the right thing on occasion. In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla argues that evangelizers of identity politics want to collapse the distance between their inner convictions and the wider world. Three Billboards depicts the world in shades of gray; the backlash to the movie flows from the conviction that, when it comes to sinners, there is only stark black and white.