Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh; 2017)

Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards).  The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time.  On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again.  She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.

The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite.  Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to.  I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy.  This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again.  It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us.  Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom.  The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.

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The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though.  There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing.  While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief.  While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way.  He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.

It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible.  In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations.  Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine.  Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell.  Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon.  He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.

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The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display.  It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly.  Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing.  The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed.  We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.

Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective.  Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints.  Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”.  Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

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Final verdict:  I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards.  I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner.  This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us.  It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental.  It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film.  This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing.  I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.

Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.

 

 

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

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If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

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Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.