“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the most intricately plotted films I have seen since “Murder On The Orient Express”.  We begin with three ragged billboards and a rear view mirror image of Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Her sad eyes spawn an idea. She strokes her chin, bites her nails, and backs her car up: she is going to stoke her anger for the whole county to see.

Mildred becomes known as “The Billboard Lady”. For a year, she rents ( for 5,000 dollars a month) the three roadside signs. Blood red backgrounds hold her three messages: “RAPED WHILE DYING” ; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”; “HOW COME , CHIEF WILLOUGHBY ?”

Her determination for revenge is so great that we think of teaching our children “ anger danger” along with “stranger danger”. The local priest tells Mildred: “Everyone is with you about Angela, but no one is with you on this.”

Church seemingly has nothing to offer Mildred. The priest deplores the revenge-filled billboards, and tells her so. Mildred gives him a hate-filled  diatribe, but later is cleansed by her burning suffering. McDormand is not exactly a Phoenix rising, but rather a more rational and compassionate soul after a series of horrendous misjudgments alter other lives, yet still keeps her seeking her daughter’s killer.

We learn about Angela, Mildred’s murdered daughter and begin to understand Mildred’s crazed anger. Mildred’s guilt for words spoken is paramount. Angela’s brother Robbie, played by Lucas Hedges of “ Manchester By-The-Sea” fame, is grieving, too, and his mother’s unconstrained ways embarrass him. Her outing to the dentist, her small town encounters, all trail  unwanted stories.

An unhinged revenge film this could be, yet the thought that what we do to each other matters gives this film a depth that garnered The Golden Globe Best Dramatic Picture.

Writer and director, Martin McDonagh, has created a  screenload of characters who are as interesting and insight-producing as I have seen. Golden Globe accolades have been given also to McDormand for Best Actress and to Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor.

The Oscars are just weeks away! And more honors are certainly to be won.

The police chief and subject of Mildred’s wrath is Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. He is a good man, who is dying of pancreatic cancer and will leave a young family behind. Mildred does not identify with his pain, even after he shoots himself. The film often surprises and shocks as it moves are sympathies around one character and then another. We learn that revenge does not ease pain, and that some people are slower learners than others in that anger begets anger.

Dinner with James ( Peter Dinklage) proves ineffective as a softener . Mildred wears her headband bandanna like Rambo’s sister. Her ex-husband, Charlie, ( John Hawkes ) is in the restaurant with his young date. Charlie’s date brings some comic relief with her dumb-witted remarks and questions. “Polio” and “polo” tend to confuse her. Hawkes does a superb job of showing his deeper connection to Mildred while not able to deal with her unchained sorrow. He is more than a neck-grabber.

Fire serves as symbol again and again. After Willoughby’s suicide, Sam Rockwell plays the role of a lifetime as Dixon. Dixon was Willoughby’s protegee. He is grieving, too, for the only man in town who did not make fun of his denseness. Dixson’s  mother is the stereotyped racist ( Sandy Martin ). We come to understand him, and we champion his remarkable growth as a  person who shows  profound change for  the better.

Does grief kill empathy? An incredible nature visitation (or what I call the  fawn sequence ) tells us “No”. This film is quite an emotional ride.

 

“Far From The Madding Crowd”

Why do we pick the men we do? Women’s selections of male companions must have intrigued Thomas Hardy for as a Victorian novelist much of his work centers on the psychological dynamics of male/female relationships. In “Far From The Madding Crowd”, the independently spirited and capriciously frank Bathsheba Everdene is proposed to by three men: Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), Mr. William Boldwood ( Michael Sheen),and Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).

“Meet me in the hollow of the ferns”… may be my favorite line. Having seen the 1967 film version crafted with Terence Stamp, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Julie Christie, I was not expecting to love Carey Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba. But,I did. I liked this 2014 costume drama better than John Schlesinger’s. In fact,the entire story is told better under the direction of Thomas Vinterberg.Watch the u-tube trailers of the 1967 version and see Julie  Christie screaming her lines as she plays haughtiness over Mulligan’s willfulness.

The film opens in 1870 Dorset. We are in Hardy country~ southwestern England, Wessex. There are variegated coasts, rolling heaths,verdant forests and luxuriant farmlands. Yet, we begin in the dark and a door opens with light and Bathsheba. A voice-over tells us her circumstances.Bathsheba is too wild to be a governess. She shows us her resourcefulness ,and she knows her power. In the open,free countryside,her independence grows and becomes her sense of pride.

Gabriel, a neighbor and the sturdy oak, has 100 acres of land and 200 sheep. He gives Bathsheba a young lamb and proposes marriage stating that “I will always be there for you.” She rebuffs him with stating that she does not wish to be tamed or married. Gabriel’s  financial fortunes are reversed when his border- collie- in -training impetuously leads his herd over a cliff. All die in the early morning surf. Mr. Gabriel Oaks is hired by Bathsheba to shepherd her interests in barley and wheat grain. She states to her inherited staff that it is her intention to astonish them all.

Sergeant Francis Troy with his scarlet uniform, dark hair and brassy gleam seduces Bathsheba with his sword exercises of trust, thrust , and danger. He tells her she is beautiful and needs to be kissed.Gabriel warns her to stay clear of him and not to believe him :”I care for you too much to see you go to ruin because of him.” A storm ensues as a presage of doom. Bathsheba marries Troy as he gambles,withholds knowledge of a former lover,and drinks French brandy to excess. Poor choice that he is, it is  ironic that he tells her, “I have made a terrible mistake” when we all know that she has.

Mr. Boldwood’s character is changed the most from Hardy’s 1870 novel. His backstory has the country gossips report that he was jilted by a former lover and is a confirmed bachelor because of this. Bathsheba and her aide Liddie tease him with a valentine. Boldwood becomes obsessed with Bathsheba and interrupts a dinner celebration where Gabriel is being lauded for saving Bathsheba’s ewes from clover bloat. Boldwood sings a ballad with Bathsheba where the refrain is “red rose bush how my loved slighted me/I chose the willow tree”. Boldwood presses her for an answer to his marriage proposal. He seems anything but bold when he notes her lack of desire for him. The theater audience laughed at his next lines: “I don’t mind if you marry me for pity.” Boldwood seems weak,never threatening. This change provides for more cinematic tension and then shock as the story proceeds.

Hardy revels in the way people form ideas about a loved one. In delusion,delirium or detachment,human pride holds strong.Bathsheba’s “Gab,I have been a fool” holds even stronger.

Hardy,as a romantic realist and a Victorian used hands to picture the inner workings of the heart. This new film version of the novel understands Hardy’s prose.”Gabriel’s fingers alighted on the young woman’s wrist. It was beating with a throb of intensity. He had frequently felt the same hard,quick beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven…” Count how many times Bathsheba’s hands and wrists are framed by the camera~limp as she stumbles out if the fern forest,locked as she remains headstrong. Thighs are eschewed here,but passion does flame in nineteen century style.

Anyway, enjoy a great adaptation and even revisit the novel or compare the earlier film and post your own insights in the comment section below.