Do Controversial Characters Deserve Oscars?

By Olivia Libowitz 
Elm Staff Writer

I’d like to make a case for complex narratives, stories that are hard to digest. Consider “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” If you’ve yet to see this film, consider this your spoiler alert.

This year’s Oscars were one of the best in years. Against all odds, Jimmy Kimmel returned after last year’s Envelope-Gate and delivered a sweet, if somewhat low-key ceremony. There were no disastrous mix-ups, or improperly pronounced names. It was one of the most diverse Oscars in history, even if the awards remain incredibly white overall. Despite the ceremony’s success, there was still some unrest post-show.

Best supporting actor and best actress went to Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand, the two leads of writer and director Martin McDonagh’s latest film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The film follows a mother (McDormand) putting public pressure on the town’s sheriff to find the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter. McDormand’s role is undoubtedly amazing, and deserving of her Oscar.

The backlash from the ceremony is directed at Rockwell’s best supporting actor role. Rockwell plays a local police officer, riddled with blatant racist and sexist beliefs, and with a history of racial violence on the force. His character, in 2018, harkens to all the stories we hear about racial prejudices in law enforcement today. This makes the archetype of Rockwell’s character very unlikeable and unredeemable.

The issue is that McDonagh writes him to be redeemable. At the end of the film, Rockwell and McDormand pair up to pursue the rapist/murderer together, and the film gives Rockwell a clear trajectory of character growth in its third act. This makes many viewers uncomfortable. Rockwell’s character is violent. He attacks people for no reason. He’s racist and nobody makes any effort to hide that. It is blatantly who he is. He is objectively the worst person on screen in this film, so why does he get a redemption arc?

That’s the tricky bit though—no matter how bad Rockwell gets, there is still a rapist and murderer off-screen, just past where we can see him. There is no way to not compare every other character to that person. Every character in the movie is morally gray. Even McDormand’s character stands by and lets some shady things happen because she’s hurting.

Audiences didn’t want the guy who played the racist violent cop to win the Oscar. Not really because they had anything against Rockwell, but because they felt it approved of and even glorified this character. In response to that, I say this: maybe so. There needs to be a push back against the concept that we cannot be witness to complex and difficult narratives. Right now in cinema, there is a huge surge of so-called sympathetic villains. These are the Lokis or the Malificents. The characters who are bad, but for good reasons. No matter how awful they are, they’re still suave and charming.

That can’t be the only type of bad guy. We need to let there be actual bad people too. We need to have an honest understanding in stories that sometimes, good people come in shades, too. Not every villain will be likeable. Not every bad person can be Voldemort, and just unquestionably awful.

“Three Billboards” gave us a story where the villain isn’t in the film, and it leaves us feeling the way McDormand’s character feels: unsatisfied and looking for someone to blame, even if it’s not their fault. Rockwell’s character is in no way supposed to be a good person in this movie, but the character is an incredibly written and developed person, and the push to make depictions of humans complex and multi-layered is an important fight. In a day and age where it seems someone is always the good guy or the bad guy, it’s good to have stories that tell us people are just people. They can grow and change, and that growth can be celebrated.

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