“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.

 

“Manchester By The Sea”

Oscar calls! Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, your grief/love scene will go down in the history of cinema as one of the best ever filmed. You both talked over one another and still struck the perfect cord in selfless emotional giving. I defy anyone not to be moved by the caring pain you showed.

If the biblical Job suffered, Lee Chandler ( Casey Affleck) is Job timed ten. Guilt and family and life-changing events slowly fill the scene in flashback sequences. We get to know this Kenneth Lonergan creation~ a working class handyman whose losses seem insurmountable.

There are two scenes that are so natural and heartfelt that the audience collectively sucked in air. This oxygen boost nearly prepared you for the morgue cart ‘s rolling sound, the clenched hands, the slow walk toward the body, the tentative touch before an endearing one, and then the hug and the final brotherly kiss. Affleck’s swift nose wipe is masterful. He absolutely drains this all too familiar event. Michelle Williams is as master-class perfect: a harpy one minute, a tender apologist the next.

The use of slow-motion, the exquisite score, and the incredible writing all contribute to this  contemporary Greek tragedy. Yet, life’s humor is not forgotten. I can’t remember a film that so nailed the psyche of the teenager: exasperatingly self-centered and childishly sweet, attempting to make sense of life with the bravado of a diva. Lee’s nephew and new charge, Patrick, ( Lucas Hedges) is against moving  an hour and a half away after his father Joe’s ( Kyle Chandler) death. “All my friends are here. I play hockey, am in a band, etc..You are a janitor in Quincy: What the hell do you care where you live!”  As Lee becomes the trustee for a 16 -year-old minor, he is aghast:” I was just the back-up!”  When Lee is berated by a passer-by ( a cameo by Kenneth Lonergan) on his parenting skills.  Patrick quips, ” Are you fundamentally unsound ? ”

When Lee tosses his clothes in a box and then carefully wraps three picture frames in individual cloth like rare gems, we sigh for him. When his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) comes to see him pregnant and moving forward with her life, the woman next to me- a seasoned film-goer of opening nights-  burst out, ” the poor man”.  Believe me, this is an emotionally wrenching film, because it so captures the normal details of life. Writer Lonergan is so observant in his recording of the contemporary experience, that he expects you to be equally alert to the “cold, ‘Keep out’ sign ” that mirrors the numbed psyche of our protagonist. The freezer attack scene is equally disarming. Cold reality and the warmth of the community balance each other.

Suspense and humor and incredulous guilt border “Manchester By The Sea”. Like the old motor on the family boat, a piston is ready to blow.  Three shocking sequences keep the story moving. Besides the central event, one is  in the police station, another at a bar.

Lesley Barbra’s score is lovely. The  Manchester scenery misses “Singing Beach, the mansions, and the stone walls and apple orchards, and the yacht club, but the white frame church steeples, and the middle class areas of North Beverly and Quincy are well portrayed. The harbor and nature’s waves seem like apt metaphors. The daily grind can seem uplifting in comparison to the tragedy life can hold. Laugh when you forget where you have parked your car. And remember that fishing off Misery Island can bolster a smile. Kudos  to a fine film!