Three Billboards, Zero Dark Thirty, and the Politics of "Backlash"

Stephan Cho - February 14, 2018

Don't call it a backlash.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest film by Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, swept through this year's awards cycle and is currently a soft frontrunner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March, along with strong momentum for Frances McDormand in Best Actress and for Sam Rockwell in the Best Supporting Actor category.

On the surface, it's easy to see why Three Billboards has resonated with awards voters.

Three Billboards features McDormand as Mildred Hayes, an indignant, foul-mouthed mother whose teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months earlier. Angered by the seeming lack of progress in the still-unsolved case, Mildred rents three billboards that put Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the Ebbing, Missouri police department on blast.

"RAPED WHILE DYING AND STILL NO ARRESTS? HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?" the billboards read.

Dark, unabashedly profane, and most importantly, angry, you can see why some have positioned Three Billboards as the film of the moment. You can also see why Mildred Hayes' thirst for vengeance might resonate, especially in the divisive political climate of the Trump era and the long post-Weinstein fallout in Hollywood and other industries.

"When local cops fail to find the killer, [Mildred] rents three billboards and paints a message calling out the chief of police. I guess that was her way of saying….one, two, three...Time's Up!" said actress Salma Hayek when introducing Three Billboards at the Golden Globes last month. "TIME'S UP!" echoed several women, to cheers from the crowd. Hayek was referring to Time's Up, a legal defense fund set up for survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

For better or worse, but mostly the worse, Three Billboards is a messier and more complicated film than this tidy awards season narrative suggests.

To its credit, Three Billboards subverts some of the more obvious choices.

While the marketing sets up a battle between Mildred Hayes, grieving mother, and Chief Willoughby, heartless police chief, their dynamic is not so binary. Mildred, despite her understandable grief, often acts out her rage in ways that cause undue harm for other people, and Chief Willoughby is not quite the villain Mildred sets him up to be.

For instance, we see how Mildred and Chief Willoughby's dynamic can shift in the course of just a single scene. In the middle of a heated police interrogation, Chief Willoughby coughs up blood on Mildred's face, and Mildred's response isn't what we'd expect.

It's revealed that Willoughby has been battling with terminal cancer, a fact that everyone in the town seems to know. In that moment, Mildred's mask peels off, and we see in her the remains of a maternal warmth that's been hiding underneath. Frances McDormand, too, gets a delicate moment.

Not everything works so well, though, and not everyone gets treated with so much nuance. As some critics have noted, Three Billboards stumbles with its racial politics and its handling of police brutality.

In the most controversial subplot, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a bumbling racist cop who lives with his even more explicitly racist mother, is revealed to have tortured an unnamed black man prior to the events of the film.

"So how's it all going in the n----- torturing business, Dixon?" asks Mildred at the police interrogation, just before her confrontation with Willoughby.

"It's persons of color-torturing business these days," he responds, in what seems like Martin McDonagh's preemptive strike against accusations of political incorrectness.

Much of the controversy has dealt with Dixon's seeming final redemption arc. The black victim and consequences of which are never shown onscreen. Mildred and Dixon set aside their differences to form an uneasy alliance at the end, as the film closes on their journey to Idaho, a gun in the backseat. DNA evidence suggests that Angela's attacker might be there, or at least someone who's responsible for an attack in the area.

The two leave a trail of violence in their wake in Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred sets the Ebbing police station on fire after her billboards are destroyed. Dixon leaves behind an entire legacy of police misconduct: between the incident of police brutality before the film, arresting Mildred's black coworker Denise on marijuana charges to get back at Mildred, and throwing Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who rented Mildred the billboards, off a second-story window.

My problem isn't necessarily with the fact that Dixon gets a redemption arc, or that he's never punished for his bad deeds. It also isn't a reactionary response to the hot issues that Martin McDonagh plays with in Three Billboards; I'm willing to accept the idea that art sometimes deals with difficult subject matter. But I have serious issues with how McDonagh handles these provocations, and it's a feeling that some critics, such as New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris, have reverberated.

"There's no reckoning with anything, no introspection, just escalating mayhem," writes Wesley Morris in his review, published a week after the film won four Golden Globes, including Best Picture - Drama. I agreed with many of Morris' points on the film, including the idea that it fundamentally "feels off" about American culture, including race, and that its many provocations feel like "Tupperware Tarantino."

Morris' piece, however, seems to have been lumped into an awards season "backlash" brewing against the film due to its success. "Can Three Billboards Hold Off the Critical Backlash Until Oscar Night?," asked one Vanity Fair headline. "The 'Three Billboards' Backlash Explained," reads another article from /Film. Even Neil Patrick Harris weighed in on Twitter, calling the article "annoying" and "angry."

Whether or not you agree with Morris' piece, it seems unfair to dismiss his criticisms, and others like his, as part of an awards season "backlash." Morris raises points about the film, such as its loaded use of the 'n-word' and treatment of black characters, that probably should have been addressed earlier on.

After seeing Three Billboards for myself last Thanksgiving break, for instance, I was surprised by how little of the coverage I'd read beforehand mentioned these aspects of the film. Three Billboards swept through the film festival cycle leading to this year's awards season, including a ten-minute standing ovation at its Venice Film Festival premiere in September, and winning the People's Choice Award, the top audience prize at the Toronto Film Festival.

Perhaps this wave of criticism isn't a "backlash," but rather a response to the gaps that the film leaves unresolved. Some pieces, like this Film School Rejects article, have compared this to the sharp turn in public opinion after Crash's surprise Best Picture win over Brokeback Mountain in 2005.

However, my first thought wasn't to Crash, but rather to Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial 2012 Kathryn Bigelow film on the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Released just eighteen months after the May 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty was met with critical and box office success, including five Academy Awards nominations and one win. Still, the film also faced a wave of political controversy, including accusations of being everything from pro-Obama, pro-war, pro-torture, to anti-Muslim propaganda.

Most controversial was the film's depiction of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," which some, like then-acting CIA director Michael Morell, said draws a link between these practices and bin Laden's capture. These criticisms didn't just come from the intelligence community. "I'm betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Zero Dark Thirty, as with Three Billboards, is often equivocal about what it depicts, including its "enhanced interrogation techniques."

It's perhaps honest for writer Mark Boal to include these practices, especially considering how he condenses all of the misleads and false starts of the ten-year manhunt that ultimately led to bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow, best known as an action filmmaker before her Oscar-winning 2009 Iraq War film The Hurt Locker, also manages to capture the visceral feeling of being in the room during these torture scenes.

The defining legacy of Zero Dark Thirty, to the extent that it's endured in culture beyond the initial controversy, is its final scene. Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who we've seen tracking bin Laden down since 9/11, has just provided the final visual confirmation on his corpse. She then boards a military transport plane to the U.S., alone. "Where do you want to go?" the pilot asks, to no response. Bigelow then pulls into a close up on Maya as she sheds a single tear, an ambiguous look on her face.

Five years later, it's still unclear whether Zero Dark Thirty does enough to reckon with the legacy of this mission, and the U.S.' legacy in the Middle East. U.S. involvement in the War in Afghanistan is ongoing, and "ISI," only briefly mentioned in Zero Dark Thirty, is the sort of enemy that doesn't result in tidy victories.

These films, and these filmmakers, don't necessarily have to reckon with traumas that the country has not fully addressed. It's not Martin McDonagh's fault that there's a legacy of racialized police violence that Three Billboards can't fully reckon with. Nor do Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal necessarily have to account for the legacy of the United States' presence in the Middle East in Zero Dark Thirty (or, for that matter, that of American police brutality in this year's controversial Detroit).

However, these "backlashes" that spring up around awards season can raise important questions about the films being honored at this time. Even if the films themselves leave these questions unsettled, viewers can help pick up the missing pieces.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a senior and the editor-in-chief of The Moviegoer. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.