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‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Is This Awards Season’s ‘La La Land’

The inevitable backlash cycle (followed, of course, by a backlash to the backlash) claims one Oscar hopeful a year. The Golden Globes on Sunday cemented which movie has been chosen for the honor in 2018.

Fox Searchlight/Ringer illustration

Back in November, a rather anarchist member of the Ringer staff, who shall remain nameless, asked, “Do you think there will be a Lady Bird backlash?” By that point, Lady Bird had become the best-reviewed movie in Rotten Tomatoes history, and Greta Gerwig was appearing on late-night shows with adorable handwritten notes to Alanis Morissette in tow. It is a pop-culture law that everything generates a backlash, and it’s a time-honored tradition to dissect and mercilessly criticize an Oscar hopeful. Last year La La Land became a target, as the movie’s critics railed against its white-savior narrative in comparison to Moonlight’s depiction of a gay black man. And so it made sense to wonder whether Lady Bird’s universal praise would eventually turn on its head.

That hasn’t happened (nor should it!). Instead, the movie that seems destined to become this year’s La La Land, this year’s Argo, this year’s The Artist is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, is suddenly an Academy Award frontrunner after winning four Golden Globes on Sunday, including Best Drama, and earning nine BAFTA nominations — basically, the British Oscars — on Tuesday. Though neither awards show is a surefire Oscar predictor, the momentum is promising for a film whose Oscar ambitions seemed to begin and end with a Best Actress push for Frances McDormand just five months ago.

When Three Billboards premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, and then the Toronto International Film Festival, the film received good-to-great reviews, drawing favorable comparisons to Fargo and earning praise as some of McDormand’s best work since, well, Fargo. It felt like the type of movie that might land on some critics’ year-end lists, but nothing about it or its reception screamed, “This is the movie that could win Best Picture.” As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote at the time, “In its vortex of agony and anger, forgiveness and redemption, Three Billboards may play, during awards season, as a kindred spirit to Manchester by the Sea, yet that movie was a masterpiece of dramatic realism. This one is more like a quirky emotional puzzle put together by a trickster poet. It’s far from a masterpiece, yet it holds you, it adds up, and it’s something to see.”

It wasn’t until Three Billboards was released in the U.S. on November 10, when critics who didn’t attend the film festivals — as well as general moviegoers — were able to see it, that criticism sharpened. In particular, Three Billboards dissenters focused on Sam Rockwell’s character, Ebbing police Officer Jason Dixon, and the film’s poor handling of race. In the film, Dixon is introduced as a problematic, dim-witted, racist cop, reviled by everyone except police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who attests that Dixon is a good man at heart. To some — including The Ringer’s own K. Austin Collins — Dixon’s redemptive arc at the end of Three Billboards was unearned, and more alarmingly, the movie never addressed the character’s racism. At best, the movies used racism as narrative window dressing to emphasize that the character was an asshole, and at worst, as The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III pointed out, it absolved him of his own racism.

For a spell, that’s where things stood with Three Billboards: at a point of agreement that while one of the film’s actors was more than deserving of awards, the movie itself was not. For those familiar with the life cycle of the backlash to an Oscar contender, this was the dormant phase.

Things began to bubble when Three Billboards began racking up nominations at smaller awards bodies in December. Nominees for the Screen Actors Guild Awards included not just McDormand for Best Actress, but both Rockwell and Harrelson as supporting actors; the film scored six Critics’ Choice Awards nominations and six Golden Globe noms. On Sunday, the movie cashed in on four of those six nominations (McDormand for Best Actress in a Drama, Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, McDonagh for Best Screenplay, and Best Picture — Drama) and became a legitimate Oscar frontrunner.

Cue the backlash! The criticisms began to resurface, especially on social media, with the general notion being: Oh shit, this problematic, not-that-good movie might be our future Best Picture winner.

Things won’t simmer down too much in the two-month lead-up to the Oscars. The SAG Awards winners will be unveiled on January 21; you can pretty much bank on McDormand picking up another win, and Rockwell may be right there with her. The Three Billboards hot takes will spout from there. As it happened with La La Land and the La La Lands before La La Land, criticism of the film will be reexamined in new, scathing ways. Meanwhile, the parts that critics did enjoy — such as the way McDormand encapsulates female rage in the #MeToo era, or the movie’s sordid humor — will be reemphasized as backlash to the backlash builds, much in the way some critics came to the defense of La La Land. McDonagh will undoubtedly be asked to address his movie’s backlash, and whether he thinks a movie like Call Me by Your Name is more deserving of this acclaim. Perhaps someone will even risk their life to ask McDormand the same questions.

It’ll all culminate on Oscar Night, and we will all sit through the entire ceremony waiting to see whether The Movie That Shouldn’t Win actually wins. Should Three Billboards lose, the cycle of backlash will end. However, if the movie wins big, the Academy’s choice, and the cycle of scrutiny, will linger for years, perhaps decades. Just ask Crash.