Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

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Dom Hemingway


The man. The myth. The legend. The cologne.

The man. The myth. The legend. The cologne.

(2013) Crime Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demian Bichir, Emilia Clarke, Madalina Ghenea, Kerry Condon, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Jordan Nash, Jumayn Hunter, Samio Olowu, Hayley-Marie Coppin, Jeanie Gold, Glenn Hirst, Philippe Pierrard, Luca Franzoni, Richard Graham, Simeon Moore, Nick Raggett, Kaitana Taylor, Colette Morrow. Directed by Richard Shepard

Florida Film Festival 2014

Some people are just larger than life. They can get away with things simply by the force of their charm, no matter how serious the offense. Of course, they can’t always get out of the way of their own shortcomings just like the rest of us but we can forgive them the kinds of lapses that we ourselves would never get a second chance for.

Dom Hemingway (Law) fancies himself the world’s greatest safe cracker, a giant among men. His prowess with women is legendary and his reputation in the criminal underground of London is second to none. He is also a stand-up guy – he’s just being released from prison after spending 12 years there – many more than he would have spent if he’d ratted out his boss, Don Fontaine (Bichir), a Russian mafia sort living in the South of France now with his Romanian girlfriend Paolina (Ghenea).

Life has passed Dom by in many ways while he was away; his wife divorced him, remarried – one of his old mates, one Sandy Butterfield (Raggett) – and finally, passed away from cancer. His daughter Evelyn (Clarke) has been raised by another man and hardly knows her father at all. In fact, she doesn’t want to know him. After all, he chose a Russian mobster over his family.

Now that he’s out, he wants to make up for lost time. He stops off to pay Sandy a visit and express his disappointment – Dom has a bit of an anger issue. He meets up with his one true remaining mate Dickie Black (Grant) who in the interim had his hand shot off but is still Don Fontaine’s loyal man. After a few days of cocaine and whores, the two go off to see Fontaine.

Dom is on quite the bender. His employer is happy to see him and is ready to give Dom the payday he deserves – just under a million pounds. That’s not enough for Dom – he wants not just what he’s owed with interest but he also wants “a present.” He’s raging, a magnificent scoundrel who bellows his discontent at the universe and takes out his anger and frustration on his boss, never a good idea.

Dom in spectacular Dom Hemingway fashion loses his money and has to scramble, asking the son (Hunter) of his most hated rival for work. In between he is trying to reconcile with his daughter who now has a son (Nash) and a boyfriend (Stewart-Jarrett). Dom looks at his daughter and sees the life that could have been. Is the life he has enough?

This is definitely a character study and it all depends on the performance you get out of the lead actor. In this case, Law is more than up to the task, delivering one of the finest performances of a career full of them. Hemingway is a mesmerizing character, one any actor would love to sink his teeth into, and Law responds. Your eyes are always on him whenever he’s onscreen (which is almost the entire movie) and you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next.

His banter with Dickie is priceless and Grant, known for different sorts of roles, holds up his end. Neither of these guys is particularly bright so much as they are clever. There’s a scene in which Dom is trying to crack a safe by apparently dry-humping it. It is comical but bizarre until Dickie explains what’s really going on.

The problem with a character and a performance like this is that nobody can really stand up against it. It’s like trying to do wind sprints into the teeth of a hurricane; all you can do is hope to stay standing but it’s unlikely that you will. The other actors mean well and do pretty well given the circumstances – Clarke (best known for her very different role in Game of Thrones) holds out better than most but in general it’s the Jude Law show.

And that’s fine – he’s given some excellent dialogue to work with even if the plot is of the been-there-done-that variety. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing this again. It’s the kind of movie that I suspect will yield some rich depth once you get past being mesmerized by Law. Nobody is doing crime/gangster movies like the Brits these days and Dom Hemingway is a proper villain who will hold up with the creations of Guy Pearce and such classics as Sexy Beast.

REASONS TO GO: Jude Law is magnificent. Grant perfectly cast. Cockney criminal poetry.

REASONS TO STAY: Nobody else can really hold up to Dom’s over-the-top personality.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of f-bombs and other colorful English language, graphic nudity and sexual content, a cornucopia of drug use and a fair amount of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jude Law gained 30 pounds for the role by drinking ten Coca-Colas a day in order to put on the kind of empty calories that Dom would consume through alcohol.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Locke

The Last Station


The Last Station

James McAvoy displays obvious beard envy.

(2008) Period Drama (Sony Classics) Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Hantsch, David Masterson. Directed by Michael Hoffman

Although he has a reputation for writing voluminous novels full of Russian names and places that are enough to cause the heads of most casual readers to spin, Count Leo Tolstoy was in reality one of the world’s greatest writers. His ideas continue to influence world culture to this day, and in his day he was considered to be a living saint – an idea he apparently didn’t dissuade.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is an old man living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and although he has espoused pacifism and celibacy his whole life (the latter of which he obviously failed to adhere to with 13 children), his life is turmoil and warfare. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren) fully expects the copyrights of his work (and the accompanying residual payments) to go to his family.

However, Tolstoy’s trusted aide Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) has other ideas. He believes that the rights should revert to the Russian people, which would be in line with Tolstoy’s political and social agenda – which to be honest Chertkov is entirely correct. This of course puts him at odds with the Countess who is a formidable woman and opponent in every respect.

Chertkov hires a young man, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), to ostensibly act as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but is in fact there to spy on Sofya which makes Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan to the core, a little bit uncomfortable. He winds up caught in the middle of the power struggle which the elderly writer seems to be blissfully unaware of.

Bulgakov takes solace in the arms of Masha (Condon), a woman who works on the drab but pastoral Tolstoyan commune neighboring the Count’s estate. Tolstoy’s days are growing numbered and his legacy is at stake. Bulgakov finds himself sympathizing with both sides – but which one ultimately should the Count’s decision fall to?

This is a fictionalized version of the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, a number of the events portrayed here did take place as written, but quite  a bit of artistic license takes place as well. We see Tolstoy not as he actually was, but as we wish he was.

That’s largely due to the tremendous performances by Plummer and Mirren. Mirren gives us a multi-layered performance that portrays Sofya as alternately loving, shrewish, arch, witty, charming, devious and obstinate. To my mind, this is not only the equal of Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen but in many ways it’s superior. She was rightly nominated for another statuette for it, although she would lose to Sandra Bullock as Best Actress.

Plummer was also nominated for his performance as Tolstoy (losing to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor), an honor richly deserved. Plummer seems to be having a great deal of fun with his role. Rather than playing Tolstoy as a ponderous, weighty pontificator who bore the burden of his greatness in his shoulders (which is the temptation), he instead humanizes the man who would go on to influence Gandhi and the peace movement of the 1960s, making him warm and grandfatherly. He dithers over the disposition of his material things, somewhat embarrassed over his own wealth and station.

McAvoy is a fine actor who has yet to really move beyond being a merely competent leading man and becoming a star; he certainly has role models to look to here if he is to move forward. He does a solid job once again, making Bulgakov likable but not memorable. Giamatti is more crotchety and is the center of the story’s conflict, a role he inhabits well. He knows how to make a character unlikable without making him grating, a very fine line that he pulls off here.

The Russia Tolstoy inhabits is changing, moving inexorably from the repressive Tsarist regime to the eventual revolution that would turn it into a communist nation that Tolstoy would have welcomed had he lived long enough to see it – and then rejected as it would become even more repressive than the government it replaced. Even in the idyllic setting of Tolstoy’s beloved home, the sense of oncoming change is ever-present in the film.

There are a lot of grand gestures and thoughts here, few of which are truly realized. We are teased with weighty insights but this film belongs more to the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov. That is the center of the action and perhaps from the standpoint of traditional storytelling that would be the way to go. However, I found the movie worked better when the relationship between Sofya and Tolstoy was at the fore; Bulgakov is more of an observer than a catalyst here, and that makes the character somewhat bland.

To my mind, this is a movie that aims high and doesn’t quite hit the mark completely, something not to be discouraged. The performances of Plummer and Mirren are both well worth seeing, and if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to their efforts, at least the filmmakers had the sense to showcase the performances of these able actors and that alone should be motivation enough to rent this.

WHY RENT THIS: An opportunity to witness two glorious performances that are as different as night and day. A look into the life of a great man who was fully aware he was great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are actual historical figures here, you get the sense they are here to perform certain roles that may or may not jive with their place in history. The script hints at grand thoughts but never really realizes them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality that contains some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The descendants of the family still live near Yasnaya Polyana and the movie was made with their support and approval. One of the count’s descendants, Anastasia Tolstoy, an Oxford graduate, shows up near the end of the film as a mourner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, as well as a segment from the AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer in which he takes questions from the audience regarding his brilliant career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.6M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bone Collector