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.

 

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Seven Psychopaths

It’s very emotional

It never occurred to me that Martin McDonagh, a renowned Irish playwright and director of In Bruges, might end up making the quintessential Guy Movie, or that the latter might be a movie about dognapping.  Seven Psychopaths, the newest from the Oscar-winning director of Six Shooter, had me saying “Jesus Christ” aloud quite a few times in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the film immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork, Adaptation., which was also about a struggling screenwriter attempting to find a good movie in a slough of terrible ideas.  In both films, the protagonist is named after the screenwriter. Kaufman’s assignment was to adapt a movie from a book; unable to accomplish this, he wrote a screenplay about himself trying to adapt a screenplay from a book.  I wonder, then, if McDonagh was wrestling with a concept and finally settled on writing about himself wrestling with a concept.  The tone of the film, ill-tempered and seemingly aggravated with its characters, may suggest this.

Marty (Colin Farrell), sits on his porch, enjoys the breeze, drinks heavily, and scribbles ideas for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” on a yellow pad.  His best friend and roommate, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) wants to help Marty with his screenplay by any means necessary, and to an obsessive degree: he not only offers to co-write the story, but he even puts an ad in the paper calling for criminals with crazy life stories to come to Marty’s house and share their experiences.  Ultimately, he resorts to an unbelievable, too-good-to-spoil solution, which involves a madman called the Jack O’Diamonds Killer – a serial killer who specializes in killing members of organized crime syndicates, shown in action in the film’s opening, which features brilliant banter between Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.  Billy is unpredictable, sexist, and gratingly annoying, and takes his surname from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.  You might think this is a coincidence until you see Billy in front of a mirror rehearsing a conversation.

Here’s the trouble – Billy has no success in his acting career, so he makes ends meet by teaming with his other roommate, the aging Hans (Christopher Walken), in a scam that involves stealing dogs and later returning them to their owners in order to collect the reward money.  Hans’ wife, hospitalized with cancer, does not approve, but Hans, a steadfast pacifist, believes he’s doing the right this as long as he gives the money to her.  The duo, of course, steal the one dog they should not steal: a Shih Tzu belonging to the most psycho of the film’s psychopaths.  This is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a gang leader with incredible love for his dog and absolute disdain for humanity.  Costello ruthlessly hunts down anyone remotely involved with the dognapping in scenes that would normally fit into harrowing, violent drama like No Country For Old Men, but due to McDonagh’s decision to make the film exceeding self-conscious, result in raucous laughs – I was a tad ashamed of laughing at some of the film’s humor, but dammit if I could keep from cackling at Woody Harrelson popping wheelies in a wheelchair while interrogating a hospital patient.

Marty’s problem is that he begins with a concept instead of characters.  He names the film “Seven Psychopaths” before he even comes up with one psychopath.  His first character idea?  A Buddhist psychopath who does not believe in violence.  Thinking aloud on this, Marty says, with a hint of resignation, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna do in the movie.”  This is one of the ongoing themes: the movie we’re watching, parts of which may or may not be happening in Marty’s jumbled thoughts, continuously seeks to find a place for its characters, and the colorful weirdos orbiting Marty (namely Billy and Hans, who make it all too clear that they know they’re in a movie), offer rolling feedback.  Billy recognizes Costello as the “chief villain,” constantly tries to set up a “final shootout” between himself and Costello’s gang, and balks when Marty suggests that the film should ultimately be about love and not shootouts.  Hans, portrayed by the eclectic Walken as buckled-down and cavalier, takes the opposite approach: he tells Marty that his women characters are all either hookers or unintelligent, and are killed within five minutes of being introduced.  This comment comes a few scenes after Olga Kurylenko’s character, Angela, is introduced and immediately killed, and after Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him and is killed (albeit in what amounts to a dream sequence, but it’s the last time she’s seen).  This provides another funny, self-conscious loop, but doesn’t change the fact that in McDonagh’s film, the actual film released in real-life theatres, the women are minimally seen and either naked or dead.

As was the case with In Bruges, the seemingly minor tidbits piece together to form a brilliant conclusion.  While Marty claims that he wants his film to have “no payoffs, just a bunch of guys sitting in the desert and talking,” Billy insists that the movie will end his way.  As such, we must remember Billy’s rules for movies, which include never showing sympathy for the villain, and never killing animals (Wes Anderson might disagree).  If he acknowledges this as a movie, then he knows he must follow his own rules, and Billy’s moments of hesitation are where Rockwell’s performance shines (a supreme achievement in a film that contains way too much of him).

The film also contains a short appearance by Tom Waits as one of the serial killers who answers Marty and Billy’s ad.  He’s a red herring for the Jack O’Diamonds Killer, but provides one of the movie’s many alternate-movies, which play like Marty’s rough drafts (or, more likely, McDonagh’s rough drafts for the real movie).  Luckily, these sequences all hold a special significance revealed later (yes, even Marty’s idea about a Quaker psychopath).

Seven Psychopaths is showy about its violence, and despite its humor, is one of the bloodier movies of the year (imagine Lawless as a comedy).  I wonder if McDonagh was going through a funk when he scripted/made this film, considering the amount of unpunished racial slurs and woman-bashing happening onscreen.  Whether McDonagh is taking a dig at the notion of being truly literary in Hollywood or was as frustrated as Marty when making this, there blooms an undeniable sense of exhaustion (and a big hint at McDonagh’s view on the less-than-fulfilling life of a screenwriter) once the action is over: sitting in his room, Marty receives a phone call from Waits’ character, to whom he broke a promise, and who calmly tells Marty he’ll kill him on Tuesday.  “That’s fine,” Marty says, distracted, his eyes glazed over.  “I’m not doing anything on Tuesday.”

Seven Psychopaths (2012); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.

The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.