Witty, poignant, and apparently controversial, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri has – since snapping up four Golden Globes and a number of BAFTAs – suddenly established a divisive place for itself in this awards season. It seems there are those of us who like it – looking at you Hollywood Foreign Press – and those among us that struggle, or even refuse, to praise a film that encourages sympathy for a racist police officer. These increasingly vocal critiques have boiled over since its recent award momentum; the criticism seems to be that Martin McDonagh is crass and irresponsible for neglecting the details of Dixon’s racism and then gifting the character a redemptive arc. It’s a criticism that, sadly, is utterly blind to McDonagh’s nakedly frank intentions.

Given years of poor representation in the industry, films that look to study the African-American experience are not to be ignored. And Martin McDonagh addresses a key bracket of this: problematic race relations in the South. Yet, he daringly deals with this aspect of his world through the lens of an immature, racist police officer who is infamous for torturing a black prisoner. And it is clear that McDonagh does not look to make ground-breaking statements on the firm grip that America’s racist past has on its equally troubling present; he is here to explore human beings at their most raw. Frances McDormand’s Mildred and Sam Rockwell’s Dixon are both consumed and driven by hate, and the film is constantly challenging us – daring us to notice the undeniably transparent similarities between two characters who we thought were morally opposite.

It’s a criticism that, sadly, is utterly blind to McDonagh’s nakedly frank intentions

Like when McDonagh made us open a tiny bit of our heart up to Ralph Fiennes’ cold, cruel Harry in In Bruges, we are forced to accept the truth of moral ambiguity.

He refuses to give us the easy answers that so many feel this film should give us. An Oscar-bait rehash of this film would soften up Mildred and give us a sugary, just resolution. But, finally, a film that really challenges us has the chance to gain a wealth of acclaim.

I said that the criticism misses the point of the film, and if I haven’t made that clear already, I’m essentially saying that people are giving very short-sighted criticism to a film that urges us to see beyond black and white morality. A film that pleads us to not be short-sighted when judging human beings. Should we forgive Dixon for his violent, racist actions? No – he’s a troubled man who has some vile views and acts even more despicably. But McDonagh does not ask us to forgive him – he reminds us that people do good things, and people do bad things. We are morally and emotionally complex individuals, every single one of us.

Most importantly, we’re all fragile. We are all moulded, influenced, and ruined by the things that are imposed on us; whether that’s cruelly losing your daughter or growing up in a toxic, vile society. Every character – bar Woody Harrelson’s surprisingly admirable officer – is multifaceted and at once provokes pity and reproach. Let’s remind ourselves what Mildred and Dixon are setting off to do in that final sequence – neither character gets a truly redemptive arc. We are presented with the honest ebb and flow of humanity’s good-heart and untameable anger, and the true test is accepting that, for all the heartbreak and uplift we’ve seen in the two hours prior, the film ends with these characters making yet another reckless mistake.

This is a stirring film – it poses a dauntingly bleak plot, but throws us a vintage-McDonagh curveball with biting humour underneath the misery. But this never turned into a nauseating string of tonal shifts – it was a black coffee with a teaspoon of sugar. Driven by two painfully vulnerable performances; a remarkably defiant McDormand and a surprisingly tender Dixon. Believe every syllable of hype you’ve heard about the powerhouse performances across the board.

McDonagh forces us to accept the truth of moral ambiguity

I could waffle on about my appreciation for what Three Billboards does for an ungodly time, but I must accept that if people find these revealing character studies troubling, then it is their absolute right to criticise this. And I open it – whenever a film picks up a wave of acclaim, it’s always valuable for it to be tested and picked apart even further. But it’s only made me admire McDonagh’s efforts even further. It’s difficult but very important to understand that these troubled characters – despite their strikingly different personalities – would all benefit from letting their life be led by love, not contempt.

In a time where our surreal media reality continues making heroes and villains of every public figure, it’s refreshing to be reminded that we are all imperfect; condemn us for our moral corruption and praise us for our acts of humanity, but don’t forget that when it comes to this stupid species, there are no easy answers.

Thank you to VUE EXETER for providing this screening!

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