Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Stupid Lives Matter


Enormously strong central performances and occasional bouts of directorial excellence manage to weld together a bunch of mismatched parts into something that sometimes almost feels like a coherent whole; and, as easy as it is to talk shit about everything wrong about it (for there's a lot, and, boy, is it easy to talk about it), it's not possible to quite deny its finer qualities, either.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
With Frances McDormand (Mildred Hayes), Caleb Landry Jones (Red Welby), Abbie Cornish (Anne Willoughby), Sam Rockwell (Officer Jason Dixon), and Woody Harrelson (Chief Bill Willoughby)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Semi-famous playwright, three-time feature film director, and blatant foreigner Martin McDonagh begins his newest movie with a gesture that teaches you how to watch it.  You probably think I mean that brief, elegaic montage of the dilapidated billboards which shall be so important to the story, standing sadly like ruins in the morning mist.  I don't.  I mean that title card that slams down on this montage just a few seconds later, reading Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, with that exact same, abjectly disgusting typography—upper-case B, lower-case o, like it couldn't quite decide on what its stylization ought to be, which is somehow appropriate—and what I mean by "McDonagh is teaching you how to watch his movie" is that, every third scene or so, it's going to go completely, utterly wrong, until eventually it just gets fucking stuck there.

It sounds supremely intriguing on paper, though: the film concerns itself with the grief of Mildred Hayes, and, with seven months gone since the torturous murder of her daughter, and with neither an arrest nor even a lead to hang any hope on, Mildred takes her fury out on the dying police chief she blames for the investigation's failure, doing so in the very specific form of three ancient, decaying billboards on a little-used road outside the city limits, rented out and renovated to state, in twenty foot high black letters on a red background, "RAPED WHILE DYING," "AND STILL NO ARRESTS," "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?"  Presumably, if she'd had four billboards, the last one would've read, "AND I HOPE THE CANCER HURTS."  Thus, with the impotent wailing of a mother who's lost her child, a daisy-chain of rage and recrimination begins, traveling from one end of this small town and back, and, of course, always in increasingly implausible ways.

To state the brazenly obvious: Three Billboards is a more-or-less conscious attempt To Do A Coen, right down to the participation of Frances McDormand and the Red State setting of the piece, and coming complete with the caricatured exaggeration of character and place that makes any typical Coen Bros. movie what it is.  (It also has a score by the Coens' frequent composer Carter Burwell; but since Burwell's been with McDonagh through both his first film, In Bruges, and his second, Seven Psychopaths, I guess this doesn't count as Doing A Coen on purpose.)

But when the Coens exaggerate and extrapolate, and God knows they do, they still seem like they have any idea what it is they're exaggerating and extrapolating fromThree Billboards may only make a few really big asks, but it makes an awful lot of small ones, and there's routinely an offness to the details of the thing: like the "betwixt" McDonagh throws into a normal business conversation, under the mistaken impression this is a Southernism, or like that lurchingly sudden mid-film reveal that our Show Me State protagonist is one of those rare Lost Caucasian Catholics of Missouri, just in time for our (Irish expat) writer-director to deliver, through her mouth, a wrathful screed against the Church that (as it so happens) also doubles as a handy little metaphor for the complicity of every cop in America with every crime committed by all the rest. Not a bad scene, in fact, although it is a forced one, which is somewhat typical of Three Billboards' approach.

Then again, those big asks are something else entirely themselves; as you may have guessed, Three Billboards is a movie that has a huge bone to pick with police corruption in the United States, which we find personified here in the shambling form of Willoughby's tantrum-prone subordinate, Jason Dixon (and at this point just naming him "Mason" and being done with it would hardly compound the sin).  Dixon is locally infamous for torturing a black man we never see, and for being mean to the couple of other black people we do see, and who have about three lines apiece.  This is the standard criticism of Three Billboards, of course (I'm not exactly breaking new ground here) but even when I more-or-less already knew what I was getting when I went in, it is flabbergasting just how overwhelmingly white this movie that wants to be about violent institutional racism actually winds up being—and the weird part is, that's not even the most flabbergasting thing about it.  (Though you would assume that a movie as white as this one would at least have a cinematographer and director capable of lighting and color processing their white actors without occasionally making them look like they've stumbled into your high school AV club's remake of Temple of Doom—which would be a somewhat inspired choice, I suppose, if the scene I'm thinking of were a scene of brutality or pain, rather than what it is, which is a quotidian little stopover into a seedy bar which has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, so far as I recall, and is memorable solely because it's so poorly photographed.)

The thing about Three Billboards is that it's effectively two movies, and one is fantastic and the other scrapes against the bottom of mediocrity, and yet both of these movies have massive, massive problems with tone, and are riddled through with a whole host of bad little decisions that combine to add up to a rankling annoyance with the film that's awfully hard to shake, even when you do like what it's doing.  And they all come from exactly the same place: McDonagh's horrifyingly misjudged attempt to force the square peg of broad, goofy humor into the very, very round hole of a dark-as-night social satire that, I'll remind you, opens up in earnest with the words "RAPED WHILE DYING."  (When McDonagh made this slapstick approach work in Seven Psychopaths, that was because Seven Psychopaths was, for all intents and purposes, already a slapstick comedy that simply happened to have a surfeit of somewhat-realistic violence.)

How well this nonsense plays depends largely upon which act of the film we're in, and, more than that, on who gets the lines: Three Billboards was, after all, marketed as little more than a rapping granny spectacle, and it makes many robust attempts to live down to all of the worst impressions you might've gotten from its trailer.  Indeed, McDormand's Mildred does run roughshod over this small town that hates her, dealing out frequent batteries to her persecutors, whilst indulging in the occasional act of domestic terrorism alongside her almost-ceaseless stream of foul language—and, naturally, she does all this with so few personal consequences that you're fairly compelled to wonder why she's so angry about nobody catching and punishing her daughter's killer in the first place.  Certainly, between Mildred's own acts of vengeance and everyone else's, before too long it's become abundantly clear that nobody ever gets caught or punished for anything in Ebbing, Missouri—to the extent that, by the laws and ordinances of Ebbing, Missouri, aggravated assault, attempted murder, and even defenestration might not actually be crimes.

But McDormand, bless her, grounds even the most ridiculous turns of Mildred's character in something raw and real and credible; you never question the film while it's still focused on her.  Nor on Woody Harrelson's Willoughby, for that matter.  (With the minor caveat of the mail-order bride he apparently got from Australia—though if we ignore Abbie Cornish's accent and her total inexplicability as a character, they're still somehow charming as a couple.)  McDormand and Harrelson elevate the bad material together; they take the good material in McDonagh's script and make it perfect gold.  Their performances are, in a way, inextricable, which suits the intextricability of their relationship—you'd know from McDormand and Harrelson's faces, even if you weren't told, that Mildred and Willoughby have known each other their whole lives, and that despite their current enmity, even their current hatred, there was once something warm and humane between them, which flickers into life, here and there, even now.  That this is, ultimately, something of a clever misdirection on McDonagh's part only makes it all the more poignant, astringent, and, in the end, funny, albeit solely in the most beautifully abominable way McDonagh's movie knows how to be.

Yet as much effort as those two expend dragging the movie kicking and screaming toward near-greatness, McDormand and Harrelson are operating so far above everyone else that it effectively makes everyone else look even worse than they already are.  And some of them are truly dire.  Without a doubt, the worst of Three Billboards' unforced errors is Mildred's abusive ex-husband's new, teen girlfriend, who doubles-down on Cornish's obvious inapplicability to the setting (I tend not to blame Samara Weaving for the character, but someone at central casting clearly switched the cards for "fashion model" and "redneck child-bride"), and Weaving was apparently coerced into playing her as the most egregious kind of misogynstic cartoon moron—though perhaps McDonagh might've at least had the decency to make his misogynstic cartoon slightly amusing.  (Meanwhile, I have no idea what this movie's saying about May-December relationships, insofar as "sometimes they're fine and sometimes they're bad" is not much of a meaningful statement.  Without anything else to think about on this point, then, you're merely left to wonder how this conservative burgh reacted to the apparent three decades their police chief spent as a childless bachelor.)

The most persistent and insoluble problem, though, is Dixon, and the way McDonagh uses Dixon to try to have his cake and eat it too, and the way this impossible gluttony comes perilously damn close to just outright ruining his movie.  Having trapped Sam Rockwell into a character that burdens the third great actor on this film's cast list with an essentially unplayable part, McDonagh spends the first half of his picture so implacably pleased to use Dixon as his punching bag for bad cops everywhere that it's almost impossible to believe he ever thought he could get away with what he tries to do with Dixon next.  Even in that first, better phase of the film, Rockwell's performance is a senseless thing, asking nothing out of the actor but to push his basic skillset as a sad, campy clown as far as it can go.  McDonagh encourages his worst tendencies and tics, while laughing at how dumb and deplorable this shithead is, and what arose out of this basement alchemy between actor and director was nothing less than a deranged, violent Barney Fife, barely demonstrating his sentience and played well past that cutoff point which Tropic Thunder once warned us of, all those years ago.  It tends, of course, to cut Dixon's menace off right at the legs, but then, as annoying as Rockwell is, it is actually effective, when the film takes its most dramatic turn of all, leading us into one of the single most horrifying and immediate exercises in pure cinema of all 2017.

What goes wrong, however, is that the amped-up insanity of its centerpiece leaves the film nowhere left to go once it's over, except perhaps to active, armed insurrection against Ebbing's fascist occupiers; and it knows it, too, flirting with outright, no-holds-barred revolution for the space of about one single reel in the middle—whereupon it loses its nerve, loses it forever, and, apparently, never completely recovers from the trauma.  That's when that second movie I was talking about begins, and this one barely has anything to do with McDormand and Mildred, let alone Harrelson and Willoughby, though it does have something to do with Mildred's unsolved case, and a whole lot to do with Rockwell taking his mentally-handicapped racist cop on a redemption arc that pans out exactly as well as you might guess, based on my chiding tone.  I will not say it doesn't work, at least as a very basic character exercise: McDormand, and even Rockwell, are too professional for it not to work, and despite McDonagh's neckbreaking thematic swerve, there's nonetheless some truly fine stuff to be had in Three Billboard's longeurs, along with all the deleted-scene chaff that defines it (like a go-nowhere subplot with Peter Dinklage's "town midget").  But, no: it's hard to call that final exchange of dialogue, suggesting something might have changed in our antiheroes, anything less than perfect.

So even if we are willing to spot Three Billboards its pathological desire to focus on the whitest possible end of its equation—and we might as well, as there's surely no need to complain about it twice—it still might be the most facile interrogation of racial (and gender) politics in America imaginable.  It's a movie "about race" and "about violence against women" that suggests that if a bad cop applies himself to solving an actual crime for once, he's actually a good cop after all, or at least a good man.  It's infuriating, in its way, because, by all the evidence, it doesn't even want to be anything except facile, though it also wants you to perceive it as deep.  There was even an easy fix; you more than half-wonder what other kind of movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could have been, and what different degree of resonance it might have had, if Mildred had been played by, let's say, Viola Davis instead.  But—obviously!—when your proposed solution to the problems of a movie is "let's replace its single best element and see what happens," then you know those problems must be fundamental indeed.

Score:  7/10

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