The Off-Key Oscar Contender

Posted January 18, 2018 12:45 p.m. EST

Sometimes, a movie comes along that appears to take the HOV lane through the awards circuit. It gets a bunch of nominations and wins some big prizes, occasionally the biggest ones, and most of the time, people — moviegoers, moviemakers, movie critics — will say they didn’t see it coming, that the enthusiasm for this movie doesn’t make any sense, that the praise being slathered insults how good about a dozen other movies actually are. Nonetheless, the movie is even kind of a hit. In its own accidental way, it does seem to be saying something about, you know, now. And the more love the prize givers throw at it, the more some people want to throw themselves off a cliff.

Last year, that movie was “La La Land.” Two years before that, it was arguably — suddenly — “American Sniper” (winner of nothing especially big, but big in the meaning we ascribed it). In 2005, it was “Crash.” This year, the entrant is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The movie won four Golden Globes, including best drama, making it a contentious Oscar favorite (the nominations come our way Tuesday).

“Three Billboards” is about a mother determined to humiliate and harass a small-town police force into solving her months-old teenage daughter’s rape and murder. Frances McDormand plays the woman — her name is Mildred Hayes — and the billboards are the site of her campaign. “Raped while dying,” reads one. “And still no arrests,” read another. “How come, Chief Willoughby?” asks the last.

What’s got people arguing is whether the movie is convincingly about America (Ebbing is as real a place as Narnia) and whether this movie about America ought to be, say, redeeming one of the racist cops serving and protecting Ebbing. Of course, anybody who loves “Crash” already knows the answer to that one — “Why not!”

The reason to do any barking — well, the reason for me — is that “Three Billboards” feels so off about so many things. It’s one of those movies that really do think they’re saying something profound about human nature and injustice. It’s set in the country’s geographical middle, which should trigger a metaphor alert. We’re talking about the sort of heartland populated by average-looking people meant to be made poetically interesting by their exotic brides (from Australia!), dying words (“Oscar Wilde”) and symbolically sadistic late-night film taste (one vindictive woman who isn’t Mildred is glued to “Don’t Look Now”). Individually, not one of these choices qualifies as a disaster. But they’re conflated here in a way that achieves a grating otherworldliness.

This is a revenge movie that’s also a dead-child tragedy that’s also a local-law-enforcement comedy that leaves room for physical comedy, cancer and a bad date. Someone is thrown from a window. Somebody else smashes through one while on fire. And Mildred seems desperate to believe in the power of the billboards as a shaming vehicle for justice. Meanwhile, the issues of the day come and go: brutal police, sexual predators, targeted advertising. It’s like a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are.

The Martian is actually Martin McDonagh, a playwright from Britain. “Three Billboards” is his third movie (“In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” precede this one), and the second set in the United States. He’s a dramatist and a linguist who can be glorious about the ordinariness and misery of duty and work. His plays — like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” or “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — tether behavior to state of mind. You believe what people do because they appear to be making the choices — ugly ones — as opposed to an author you can picture yanking the strings.

But his movies are all strings. Often they feel as if other filmmakers are doing the pulling. “In Bruges” featured two hit men on a chatty stroll in Belgium, and certain people’s passion for it is fit for Valentine’s Day. But it was Tupperware Tarantino to me.

To “Three Billboards” admirers and to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the outfit that hands out the Golden Globes, something about the movie rings true or feels timely. That presumption of truth is driving some of the annoyance over this movie. My favorite bad thing about “Three Billboards” is its ambition to play around with America’s ideological and geographical toys.

One of the toys is the word “nigger.” Another is the concept of political correctness. There’s a scene between Mildred and a hotheaded dimwit cop — the racist — named Jason (Sam Rockwell), in which she baits his racism by calling him a “nigger torturer.” He hits the roof. “Person-of-color-torturing” is what he says you must call it now, with exasperated lament. They volley the word and poke fun at its impropriety. You can tell that McDonagh relished the application of absurdism to the political correction (he knows “person-of-color-torturing” really is linguistic torture, maybe even for a person of color). But he also seems to like the loaded nonsense in the sound of the word “nigger.” What you hear in a scene like this is a kind of careless virtuosity. It’s a fun scene that’s sunk by how much fun it’s having with things you’re not supposed to have fun with. The whole movie is like that — it’s like Mildred: rude for sport and proud of it.

There’s certainly a place for a white artist to poke, laughingly, at our racial and class messes. (Mel Brooks, for instance, excelled at it.) But McDonagh doesn’t want to do more than poke. Danish director Lars von Trier tried a more explicit damnation of the United States with “Dogville” (2003) and “Manderlay” (2005). But I liked the nihilism in von Trier’s respective approximations of racism and slavery, even if he followed a European habit, especially in documentaries, of diagnosing America’s ills in the least surprising and most patronizing way.

For a movie that asks you to behold so much violence — defenestration and talk of rape, a bludgeoning, a suicide, charred skin, a dental drill that treats a thumb like drywall — “Three Billboards” feels weirdly benign. Its black comedy doesn’t leave a bruise. The violence curdles into the cartoonish. The movie could be about grace and vengeance, but they’re presented as hoary lessons and hokey contrivances — happening upon a deer, sharing your orange juice with the madman who tried to murder you, juxtaposing the reading of an inspirational letter with an inferno. There’s no reckoning with anything, no introspection, just escalating mayhem. The mix of the silly and the serious puts in the movie in Coen brothers territory. But they can adjust the settings for their cynicism. Even at their worst, they’ve got their finesse. McDonagh just keeps bashing away.

This really is an action movie whose action is played for laughs. Mildred beats up teenagers and tells off priests. Her precision with a Molotov cocktail should land her in the Super Bowl. McDormand certainly makes the most of the tirade machine McDonagh has built for her. (Not since “Erin Brockovich” has anybody gotten to tell off this many people with this much gusto.) You feel for Mildred, but you fear her more. When she approaches a table in a restaurant carrying a wine bottle, the audience practically begs her not to use it. By this point, Mildred is way past being a mad mommy. She’s Charles Bronson.

“Three Billboards” is a cupcake rolled in glass. It all just feels off. The redemption of the racist cop doesn’t bother me — Sam Rockwell studiously plays him as a dangerous dope. But the way two other black characters (Amanda Warren and Darrell Britt-Gibson) and a smitten dwarf (Peter Dinklage) bop around Mildred is almost Muppet-like. (Dinklage’s status is meant to be a source of unapologetic amusement. More stuff you’re not supposed to have fun with!)

Eventually, the film introduces a temporary black police chief (Clarke Peters) who seems meant to draw out — Sidney Poitier-style — some of the bigotry coursing through town, or at least through the precinct. But he’s as much a prop as one of the billboards. I thought a lot about this movie watching “American Vandal,” an eight-part, sitcom-length show, created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, on Netflix. It parodies the true-crime boomlet epitomized by “The Jinx” on HBO, “Making a Murderer” on Netflix and podcasts like “Serial.” And, like “Three Billboards,” the series revolves around jerks. Someone spray-painted 27 penises on 27 cars in the staff parking lot of a high school in Oceanside, California. And two student reporters investigate. The prime suspect — a stoner-skate punk senior named Dylan Maxwell — has been expelled. The two reporters poke holes in the case against him and explore a gamut of alternative culprits.

Like McDonagh’s movie, “American Vandal” takes a circuitous route to earnestly asked philosophical questions about human nature. The show has a breezy confidence that never tips all the way into mockery. But it’s a lot less impressed with itself. It undermines the piety and ethical lapses in nonfiction mystery shows, while sharing with “Three Billboards” a belief in semaphores and that people aren’t any one thing. Also — and this feels important — it feels as if the people who made this show understand their setting and the people who live there. I’ve never been to Oceanside, but I believe this show’s rendition of it.

Even in a setting as generic as an American high school, the show has a sense of place. And it’s a white show whose nonwhite characters don’t feel like objects. I’m not sure what Ebbing is. You can feel that uncertainty in the movie’s cop-out of a finale, in its bewildering loftiness (“Oscar Wilde” as a character’s last words) and in the coveralls Mildred spends most of the movie wearing. Her job is at a rustic gift shop, but the coveralls point to the harder blue-collar work we’ve seen McDormand do in movies like “North Country.” Here, these clothes signify emotional work, yet they feel like a put-on, too. Three billboards, sure — but outside a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon.

The movie isn’t an explicit work of politics, but it reaches something political in certain people in the same way it touches something emotional in others. And yet in arguing about this movie what I don’t want, but where I’m afraid we are — with lots of films this time every year — is in another fight over a movie’s politics that manages to leave the movie itself behind.

Whose fault is that? We’ve been seduced and bullied into thinking of the awards season as a process of politics. The people who make the movies also run or finance “campaigns.” There is opposition research, and, in the form of other award shows, primaries, so to speak. And it all culminates with the election night we call the Academy Awards broadcast. So it’s only natural that we tend to think of best picture (and a few of the major, ancillary categories) as a kind of vote in which, while average people have no say, we’re all invested in the symbolism and catharsis of the outcome.

“Three Billboards” must appear worthy of elected office, in some way. This was at first the illusion presented by the people running the campaigns, and in turn over the years, has become the custom for lots of us.

The movie can’t be just the misfire that it is. The enthusiasm for it has to represent the injustice the movie believes it’s aware of — against young murdered women, their suffering dysfunctional families and black torture victims we never see — but fails to sufficiently poeticize or dramatize what McDonagh is up to here: a search for grace that carries a whiff of American vandalism. Of course, few movies can predict their moment, but “Three Billboards” might be inadequately built for this one.