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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Produced by: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Martin McDonagh

Written by: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

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Marvel and DC comics continue to punt their wares in cinemas and on TV providing us with comforting visions of super-people and alien heroes guarding Earth and galaxies far, far away. We need these characters and events to, amidst the fighting and explosions, make us feel safe by providing neat, happy, ribbon-tied endings which find the evil-doers crushed and our spirits raised as we return to reality. However, there are also writers and filmmakers who challenge our perception of reality, presenting it not as black and white; good and bad; with justice and redemption prevailing. No, certain filmmakers present a muddied view of the world; an unjust and angry vision of humanity; a complex perspective where there aren’t necessarily good people doing good things but rather good people doing bad and bad people, sometimes, just sometimes, trying to be good.

Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of most challenging screenplays of the year.  It does not hold up to any politically correct agenda as it paints the world as a cancerous, racist and vicious place where murder and rape crimes go unsolved and grief-stricken vigilantism seems to be the only means of gaining some movement toward closure. As a playwright Martin McDonagh was always drawn to violence and dark humour. His first film, In Bruges (2008), was a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; yet with Three Billboards, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date. With its’ singing and stinging script we have a highly emotional drama brimming with incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners.

MILDRED

Following the murder of her daughter Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand, no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (a brilliant Woody Harrelson) she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes.  In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred, is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is about direct, in-your-face and ballsy action.

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Supporting McDormand is phenomenal ensemble cast including: Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother, played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively they portray imperfect characters whose lives have not just been dealt a bum hand but their situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on grief and frustration with life and the world. Rockwell’s Dixon is arguably the most controversial character as he is essentially a racist man-child and a terrible cop who, via Mildred’s violent actions, awakes from his moronic coma to strive for redemption.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

McDonagh script is fantastically dark as he imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikeable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.

 Mark: 10 out of 11

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MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #8 – LENNY ABRAHAMSON by PAUL LAIGHT

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #8 – LENNY ABRAHAMSON

Bit of a change up for this blog concept as my prior seven articles have been given over to praising actors but I thought: why not praise filmmakers too? In this instance I have, of late, been blown away by the brilliance of the director Lenny Abrahamson. He is an Irish film artist who has made FIVE films; and they are ALL, in their own way, little masterpieces. Working within the socio-realist and humanist style he is drawn to characters that either live on the outskirts of society or through their actions or personalities are pushed away by the world. His films are small in scale but massive in heart. Even the most microscopic event ripples with emotion in Abrahamson’s work as he focusses on those rejected or imprisoned by patriarchal and capitalist society.

Abrahamson’s films imbue the same emotional energy of the neo-realism and social realism genres. His authorial style and themes also evoke the work of: Vittorio DeSica, Alan Clarke, Karel Reisz, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. He has a subtle documentary style as his work represents the human condition in all its glorious failures. Most of all the characters in all his films, whatever their situation, are tremendously empathetic and Abrahamson’s power as a storyteller is to make us feel the pain, despair and joy they feel. He’s been nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the incredible film Room (2015) and I think he deserves to win it. Not just for Room but for ALL the films he has made!

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

 ADAM AND PAUL (2004)  

This black comedy about two junkies trying to get a hit manages to be both hilarious and sad simultaneously. It’s set over the course of twenty-four hours as our eponymous anti-heroes begin the day surrounded by a bleak landscape with no idea where they are. All they want is a fix and trudge from one estranged encounter to another attempting to avoid the law and various Dublin lunatics. They are pathetic creatures but their plight is played for dark laughs notably in the shoplifting scene and their encounter with the Bulgarian guy on the bench.

While they are at times loathsome the humour in the script (written by Mark O’Halloran who played Adam), terrific direction and performances really drag us into these two lowlife’s rotten existence. They are trapped by their own addiction and live moment to moment; with fate and chance buffering them from one crazy episode to another. This is a great feature debut from Abrahamson which shows even the most hopeless side of humanity can be tinged with humour.

GARAGE (2007)

I caught this one of Film Four a few years ago. I thought I’d watch ten minutes and go to sleep but 90 minutes later I was transfixed by a very simple but heart-breaking character study. It concerns Josie – portrayed by Father Ted actor Pat Shortt – and his lonely existence as a simple garage attendant in an Irish rural village. Josie is, one may argue autistic in some way, or at least showing evidence of learning difficulties.  However, he is hard-working, pleasant and harmless enough. While he suffers ribbing and derision from some townsfolk he laughs it off mainly.

The film moves slowly establishing real empathy for this simple man and symbolises his outside status by comparing him to a horse he has befriended which is tied up alone in the field. Then, in an act of friendship towards a teenage boy working with him, Josie unravels his humble life causing the town and law to turn against him. The only thing Josie is guilty of is naivety really and the tragedy of the final act is very potent. Abrahamson, writer Mark O’Halloran and the brilliant Pat Shortt deliver a masterclass in understated human drama about the little guy who would never harm anyone but is turned away for one mistake.

WHAT RICHARD DID (2012)

Abrahamson’s third film is different from his first two inasmuch as he shifts focus from the lower or working classes of Ireland to a financially better-off protagonist. However, the conflict is still very powerful despite the privileged nature of the character. Indeed, Richard Karlsen is a young, handsome, middle-class, rugby-playing lad with a very good future ahead of him. That is until one fateful night when a drunken mistake leads to tragedy and a moral dilemma for Richard and his father (Lars Mikkelsen) to deal with. The film asks us the important question: what would you do if you committed a crime? Would you come forward and admit guilt or try and get away with it?

It’s a film not necessarily just about what Richard did; but more about what he, his friends and subsequently his father do NOT do. I do not want to give away Richard’s actions but similar to Garage he makes a tragic choice, although the outcome is far more fatal than Josie’s naïve gesture. The impact of Richard’s dilemma is heightened by his abandonment and separation from his father, friends and the wider community. Like many of Abrahamson’s characters Richard – portrayed superbly by Jack Reynor – ultimately ends up alone and the film stands as a critique of patriarchy, while examining the nature of consequences and the overpowering shock of guilt.

FRANK (2014)

I used to listen to Frank Sidebottom (AKA Chris Sievey) on the John Peel sessions when I was a teenager and while baffled by this strange entertainer, I always enjoyed the alternative nature and humour of his music. Of course I was also intrigued by the fact this eccentric Northerner was pictured in the NME and Melody Maker wearing a papier mache head on. So, in truth a film about this character interested me somewhat but I just thought it may be weird for weird sake. However, Abrahamson, once again, has crafted – from a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan – a tremendously odd yet moving character study inspired by Frank Sidebottom.

The story focusses on Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) and his encounters with Frank’s experimental rock band, as he attempts to apply order to a chaotic creative process. In the subtext however, it’s also a moving study of mental illness, and how during the highs and lows of manic depression creativity can flourish. Of course, this doesn’t always transfer, as Jon discovers, to commercial success and ultimately the band like Frank self-implode to obscurity. Scene after scene of weird and wonderful events occur throughout leading to a very poignant reveal of Frank’s face when the mask finally comes off. The final scene is a revelation as the band play together alone once again. Here the majestic Fassbender, as Frank, rips out our heartstrings happy just to play music again with his band.

ROOM (2015)

Room is an amazing film. Probably the best and most moving I have seen for a long time. It concerns Joy (the incredible Brie Larson) and her young son Jack (stunning Jacob Tremblay) who have been abducted and trapped in a shed by a nefarious kidnapper referred only as “Old Nick”.   The film is presented from the innocent boy’s perspective and the pathos and empathy I felt throughout was both touching and heart breaking. What the writer’s premise does and filmmakers do is make you care about the characters immediately making every scene so suspenseful and soulful. If you are captured by stories about proper characters trying to survive dire events then it’s a must see.

These are characters who have been physically and emotionally imprisoned by a masculine world and are attempting to gain freedom. The way Joy protects her son from Old Nick brought a lump to the throat. Moreover, the escape scene with Jack playing dead had my heart beating frenetically. The budget was low at $6 million yet director Lenny Abrahamson, his brilliant cast and writer Emma Donoghue have created a masterpiece in emotional storytelling. Ultimately, it’s a film not just about isolation, abandonment and the horror of humanity; but also the unbridled love a mother has for their child and child for their mother. Right up to the final gut-wrenching scene is a truly stunning film which will linger in the memory for some time to come.