McDormand won a Golden Globe for her performance and will no doubt get an Oscar nomination, which few are disputing she deserves. The character she portrays is so unapologetically enraged that watching the movie around its release, shortly after the Weinstein allegations broke, felt particularly cathartic. As her allies disappear and those in power try to silence her, she only gets louder.
But critics of the film take issue with Dixon, the character Rockwell won a Globe for playing: a racist cop who routinely abuses his power. The only way to truly get into the complaints about the movie is to reveal plot details, so be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
Over the course of the movie, nearly every character seems to be aware of Dixon’s history of “torturing” at least one black prisoner in custody, though the film never fully delves into the details of what happened. We also see the cop nearly kill a man, who’s white, by beating him before tossing him out a second-story window. Dixon doesn’t suffer consequences for those actions, though; instead he gets to enjoy a redemption arc.
Gene Demby, who’s the host of the podcast Code Switch, most fully delved into what he found problematic about the depiction of racism, saying that McDonagh treated Dixon’s abuses like “a character beat” and let “the interiority of abusive white police officers take precedence over the brutality they visit on people.”
The black characters that do appear in the film are sidelined in small roles with plot points that serve to advance the story of the white leads. For example, Mildred’s closest friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is harassed by the police and arrested as a way to get to Mildred. Demby called attention to the fact that, when Denise is finally released, she doesn’t seem to bothered by what happened to her — she’s more concerned with how her friend is doing.
“I’m just shocked that so many people liked this movie so much because there’s so much structurally wrong with it,” he said, “but there’s so much morally wrong with it.”
Host Linda Holmes was also troubled by the way domestic violence was used in the movie. When Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes) chokes her, the way she “processes domestic violence is so glib in this way — and I understand that a real person in that situation might do that,” but the movie doesn’t take “a point of view about that fact.”
Meanwhile, Washington Post op-ed writer Alyssa Rosenberg has argued that the film “didn’t need its racist cop” and criticized the way the film wastes “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage by relegating him to a role defined by his dwarfism.
So now it’s the Academy’s turn to weigh in. Will the increasingly diverse (but still disproportionately white) pool of Oscar voters be turned off by the film’s depiction of racism? Or will the movie’s momentum continue? Prepare for the next backlash when the nominations are announced Jan. 23.