“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.

 

“Irrational Man”

At seventy-nine,Woody Allen can no longer charm romantically inclined girls,so what does he do? Make fun of the romantic temperament,of course.

As writer and director,Allen does his wordplay thing, called antithesis. “Conservative ~in a liberal way” is how Jill,our smitten college senior,( Emma Stone) describes her philosophy teacher, Abe. ( Joaquin Phoenix) Murder as giving one meaning to live is Abe’s existential thought, “The perfect murder made me feel alive.” When Jill cites that Abe suffers from despair, he retorts drolly with “How comfy that would be”.

Joaquin Phoenix enters in a voiceover as Abe Lucas. He is in a late-model,gray Volvo entering a new campus setting in Newport. Abe is relaxed as he bonds with his philosophy students and ironically talks about “situational ethics”.Kant’s perfect world where there is no room for lying foreshadows Allen’s storyline,too. Kierkegaard’s “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” meshes with Abe’s choices and moral posturings.With flask always at hand, Phoenix is so comfortable in the role that he often channels Woody’s mannerisms. This is funny and adds another layer of depth to the film. His definition of philosophy as verbal masturbation does not.

Emma Stone is equally as good as the besotted Jill. When she stares with her big blues and states,”I hate that you think I’m practical”, the audience gets that she is too romantic to throw away the risk of losing a boyfriend for dating her prof. Allen uses a second character voiceover to keep us guessing who is really “the irrational man”,student or teacher. Anyway, Jill sees Abe as a brilliant sufferer. She wears a new perfume on a restaurant date and sighs,”I love that you order for me.”

If Emily Dickinson is quoted as “drunk on air” then Woody is “drunk on music”. His film’s jazzy score is often more entertaining than the film’s action. Besides Abe imbibing non-stop on single malt Scotch, his colleague in the Science Dept. unscrews flasks just as fast. Parker Posey plays the screwable Rita. Initially,she has trouble making the character more than a caricature. As the film progresses,she warms up and plays a dreamy foil to Jill.
When Abe complains,”I can’t write. I can’t breathe”, Rita follows up with “I hope you are not going to send me out into the rain without sleeping with me.”Forthright and gossipy,her crackpot theory and mutual crush rattles Jill and allows for a neat story arc.

Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is shown when Abe sees no way to save himself but by killing the precocious Jill. The storyline is silly. The flashlight roll into the elevator memorable.The passive intellectual finding zest for life in murder is more cause for despair than for humor. Go with your instincts on this one. A dark cloud has crossed Woody’s moon and there is poison in the park.