“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.

 

“The Glass Castle”

Loved the book, “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. Did not care for the screenplay, which focused mostly on the alcoholism of the father and left a much more angry Jeanette Walls than the book left us. Trying to make complicated family dynamics simpler may have been the reason for cutting key elements of the Walls’ family story and adding others. Why leave the hidden candy bar episode of the mother out? Why have Jeanette leave her husband as she moves on to freelance writing? Why exclude a siblings loss? Why not show the children foraging for food as they spent so much of the book doing?

The film’s tone is much more judgmental than the book’s breezy spirit. Counter culture beliefs are made to look like they stem from mental illness or from “losers” who can’t hold a job. The acting is top knotch: it is screenplay that misses the mark. The back and forth flashbacks are ill-timed. Writer/Director Daniel Cretton also must deal with some poor sound quality. Cretton’s artful repetition of the water boiling scene was a symbolic plus.

The non-conformity of Jeanette Wall’s parents is played beautifully by Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson. “Turbulence and disorder” rule creativity, even if the basic needs of safety and nutrition are neglected. As artist mother Rose Mary’s (Naomi Watts) logic surmises, “food will be gone in an hour, but an oil painting will last forever.” For four children who have not eaten in three days, this misses the fact that they may not be around to gaze at canvases. Still Rose Mary’s yellow doors on every domicile will move you.

Woody Harrelson has never been better than he is as Rex, Jeanette’s father. His family wolf calls, his windowed-castle blueprints, and his tenderness toward Jeanette’s burn scars outshine his drunken recklessness. He puts Jeanette in harms way, yet believes she can fend for herself. His skedaddling if often a betrayal of nurture. He can be brilliant and then dastardly drunken-crazy within the same afternoon.

Brie Larson plays the adult Jeanette; Chandler Head plays Jeanette as a child; Ellen Anderson plays the teenaged Jeanette. All are arrestingly good. David, Jeanette husband ( Max Greenfield) weathers his part well. When Jeanette admonishes him with, ” When it comes to my family, let me do the lying !”, we cringe with him. Robin Barlett as the abusive, West Virginia gramma will keep people from naming their offspring Erma.

Yet, I loved being reminded of Jeanette’s story. I spoke with her for eight minutes during her Indianapolis book tour, and immediately liked her easy warmth and truth-telling. I did not get the same vibe from Brie Larson’s portrayal. I hold the screenwriters and the director at fault. Wall’s tale is one of acceptance and acknowledgement of lessons learned. Her hard-scrabble youth did not focus on forgiveness or the need for parental atonement. She did not see herself as a victim. Read her 2005 book and see what I mean.