Thursday, January 11, 2018

Tour De Frances

Year: 2017
Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I had been resisting watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has been probably the most violently divisive entry in the awards bait canon in a year that's rumbling with controversy. But after it won the Golden Globe, I felt obligated to weigh in, so here are my way-too-late thoughts on the project. Strap in folks, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Why couldn't The Greatest Showman have won, so I could just review that again?

So, here's the plot. It's been seven months since Mildred Hayes' (Frances McDormand) daughter was raped and murdered. Still struggling with how to handle the loss and find closure in the case, she rents out three billboards on the road leading into town blaming the police - and especially the beloved Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is struggling with cancer - for not making any headway. This stirs up a lot of backlash from the town and creates a firestorm of conversation and controversy.

Policeman Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) - that's literally his name, I don't know what to tell you - is already prone to violent rages so this doesn't bode well for the town's spirit in general. But she also gets different degrees of support and blowback from her grieving son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, who is there with bells on if you have a part in an Oscarbait movie where he gets to do an accent), the "town midget" James (Peter Dinklage), and her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who is now living with his 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving). Mildred meets the blowback of the town with endless tough-mother posturing and kicking dudes in the balls.

Imagine this picture times thirty and you pretty much get it.

It's very tempting to approach this film from a moral perspective instead of a critical one, which has become ever-so common in today's online film culture. And while I would never argue that the faults of the characters (their use of offensive, outdated terms, for one thing) are faults of the movie, Three Billboards is necessarily about the muddiness of morality and redemption. It invites us to consider the morality of these characters as the story's prime currency, and that invitation leaves it vulnerable because those themes are clunky and entirely mishandled.

For one thing, this is a story about sexual assault and violence against women that was written by a man. For another thing, this is a story about racial injustice and police violence that was written by a white man. For a-f**king-nother thing, this is a story where Woody Harrelson's wife is played by a woman who's 21 years younger than him and is forced to stumble through a line about how great his penis is.

And to be frank, a white man writing this story isn't necessarily a liability. It just shouldn't be this white man. Martin McDonagh somehow manages to write a script with a central thesis on racial injustice that features three black characters with speaking roles in a cast of dozens, and two of those speaking roles have fewer words than your average cough drop wrapper. And the foregrounded statements about women fighting against assault are couched in an endlessly repetitive litany of scenes of McDormand dishing out cartoon violence with impunity. It swivels from being gritty and violent to quippy and light in lurching, uneven motions, and never manages to stretch a consistent tone over more than ten minutes at a time.

The one scene where she doesn't have her fist planted firmly up a man's ass.

The plot is messy and irritating, even though the script does find its moments to shine when the humor is isolated enough from the drama to not feel so maudlin and strained. But the actors living out that plot are pretty uniformly terrific. Frances McDormand has already been more than recognized for her work here, but she really is superb, embodying her role in a very physical, top-down performance that doesn't skimp on the little gestures and details. She even redeems some of the dumb mama grizzly scenes, peeling back layer upon layer of the character that isn't present on the page.

Sam Rockwell is doing fine work here too, especially in his most comic dopey moments, but his character is a little too off the rails of actual human behavior that he is forced to fall back on the marble-mouthed mumbling that most actors do when they want to be tough in movies set in the South. Then there's Harrelson and Dinklage being exactly as good as you'd expect (but not much more).

But honestly, if I was in charge of handing out the awards, I'd make sure not to overlook Samara Weaving, who is straight-up brilliant in an unforgiving role, constantly approaching it at a sideways angle you wouldn't expect. She's the only consistently hilarious element of Three Billboards, and that's saying something for a movie that tries very hard to be hilarious.

It is my burden to be blessed with such good taste in actresses.

However, Martin McDonagh the writer is much more successful than Martin McDonagh the director (which is saying something). He mostly just sits back and lets his excellent cast work their magic, not attempting to do anything particularly interesting with the visuals. The man only really comes alive when it's time to shoot the titular billboards, which his camera swoops over and around with pornographic fervor every time they appear.

And thus does Three Billboards spill out across the screen in a tangled mess of misguided morality and wasted talent. I found it hard to hate, but it's too slapdash to recommend. The fact that it won the Golden Globe speaks to what an uneven slate of films we've been presented with this year more than anything else.

TL;DR: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is kind of a mess, but it really does boast some noteworthy performances.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1005

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