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.

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.