Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.