Welcome to 18-52, a weekly review column that tackles two current releases on your cinema screen and in your stream.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is in the process of being interrogated by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). She’s been brought into the police station because of the agitation and accusation of the eponymous three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred can’t stand the inaction in the case of her daughter’s rape and murder and after a year of dead ends and no progress decides to antagonise Willoughby into action. McDormand’s Mildred has her jaw clenched and a posture reminiscent of a pylon — perfectly straight and unyielding. Harrelson rises up from his seated position to stand over Mildred to show his dissatisfaction. Willoughby is giving her a verbal lashing when he accidentally coughs and a spray of blood speckles Mildred’s face.
Something happens in this utterly shocking and sickening exchange. Willoughby, you’ll learn, is riddled with cancer and that loaded cough is a sign that his prognosis has gone from bad to worse. Harrelson’s face fills with shame and fear. As he immediately changes tack to profusely apologise, McDormand shifts instantly; she doesn’t recoil in shame and spit further invective, she completely softens, immediately comforting Willoughby.
As Mildred Hayes (McDormand) creates a stir in Ebbing with her billboard hire, the police force, renegade officers (Sam Rockwell), their families and allies attempt to silence her. Instead Mildred’s gesture in the fiery pursuit of justice and satisfaction coincides with a series of events that shake Ebbing to the core.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh burst onto the international cinema scene with the lauded black comedy “In Bruges.” The foul mouthed, politically incorrect, “fish out of water” buddy comedy, was delightfully dark. His much anticipated follow-up “Seven Psychopaths” is a projection of his writing process, which attempts to overcome suffocating expectations. The result is a writer (Colin Farrell) absorbing the fantastical lives of his strange friends only to be doomed to take a writers retreat to re-write elements of their lives to escape cliché. On first viewing it was a little too self-aware and a little too self-effacing. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a collision of both pursuits and perhaps the truest reflection of his talent.
In a recent interview on the Soundtracking podcast with Edith Bowman, McDonagh gave some insights into Francis McDormand’s influences when crafting the Mildred character. McDonagh revealed that Mildred’s demeanor was modelled on John Wayne and that she wanted to wear a bandana like Christopher Walken in “Deer Hunter.” While McDormand’s conception of Mildred clearly saw the conflicted morality and irrational vigilantism as central to the character, and Carter Burwell’s Western influenced score panged with strums of regret, for McDonagh it wasn’t as apparent. For McDonagh, this is a dark farce, one of desperation and the delusion that we can live in a world of justice.
Mildred (McDormand) is lost and tired of agonising over the unknown; she’s willing to make herself a target in order to elicit the necessary reaction. She’s burdened that she can live in a town that continues to bubble along while young girls can be raped and murdered and the perpetrators roam free. Her son Robbie (played by the terrific Lucas Hedges) must assume the role of referee for those close to Mildred who may act with hostility. McDormand’s Mildred is such a beautifully layered performance that becomes evident as you begin to unpack the helplessness that cauterized her into a stubborn, and quietly ferocious character.
There are some terrific performances surrounding and elevating McDormand’s leading role. You enter a fully developed world full of eclectic blowhards, whose interactions crackle like fireworks waiting to happen. Sam Rockwell’s racist, dullard Dixon, Ebbings’ answer to “Bad Lieutenant,” is a focal point in the film. With a sluggish racist mother (Sandy Martin) poisoning his mind with prejudice and impropriety, he takes an abusive exception to Caleb Landry Jones (Red Welby) servicing Mildred’s request. Harrelson’s Willoughby plays a pivotal role in his perceived failure (Mildred) and mentoring (Dixon). Peter Dinklage plays James, a rare person in town that doesn’t immediately show Mildred hostility for her actions. Dinklage is able to conjure an epiphany for Mildred, while being the butt of many crass little people jokes; he’s a talent. Mildred’s violent ex-husband Charlie is played with frightening volatility by John Hawkes.
Just when you’re ready, willing more of these explosive chain reactions, there’s an event that halts the trajectory of epithets and slapstick violence. It’s for this showy manipulation of story that McDonagh’s films have become increasingly divisive. “In Bruges” has clarity and focus; “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards” make very pronounced gear changes mid-way through proceedings. In the case of “Three Billboards,” the impact of the event (yes I’m being vague to avoid spoilers) feels organic and packs a stirring emotional punch. The primary issue for the negative critical discourse for “Three Billboards” is that there’s an apology or redemption allowed for deplorable characters in the film. That is absolutely not how this critic experienced the film. In fact, at the conclusion of the film, Dixon (Rockwell) is striving to heed the advice of Willoughby (Harrelson). He’s attempting to be a better man, but in fact the entire exercise is futile. What’s more devastating is that Mildred, at this point in the story has had no more satisfaction. And yet, perhaps compassion, in the face of an unjust world is the final thing that one can cling to.
Francis McDormand is undeniable as Mildred in “Three Billboards.” Her performance as Mildred is the glue that prevents this muddy, Middle American morality tale from navigating McDonagh plot dalliances. Mildred is in a strange cinematic symbiosis with Sam Rockwell’s deeply disturbed Dixon.
“Three Billboards” leaves you conflicted; McDonagh wants you to soak up the ambiguity of the actions the characters are striving toward to feel content. Sauntering onto a stage and into your Netflix queue is arguably one of the greatest comedians of all time, Dave Chappelle. His latest offering, a traditional concert hall comedy special titled “Equanimity” explores controversy created from first Netflix specials, comedic intent and the comedic elephant in the room, Donald Trump. The second special is an intimate Comedy Store ‘Belly Room’ performance titled “The Bird Revelation,” that snaps with immediacy tackling taboo after taboo (sexual harassment, Louis C.K, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose) and expanding into what happens now.
Directing is Stan Lathan, a veteran of T.V, and the “Def Comedy Jam” productions, creating the polish for “Equanimity” and the raw intimacy of “The Bird Revelation.” Chappelle begins “Equanimity,” the first of this dynamic duo of specials, with a warning that this might be the end times for his recent return to the top of international comedy. After his last specials, when some transgender jokes had him embroiled in controversy, he felt that sensitivity and misjudgment of comedic intent had reached such a fever pitch that perhaps it was time to disappear once again. Instead of shying away from the topic, Chappelle tackles it head on. He spends the opening stanza of the show articulating and distinguishing intent, particularly reflections of his own swelling controversy from members of the disenfranchised transgender community. It’s a rare and splendid thing to see Chappelle talk about reading an account of the harm that he’d caused to an anonymous fan and to actually pause and contextualise his thoughts. It’s a refreshing phenomenon to see a comic use valuable real estate in a special to muse on existential questions – and be funny while doing so. If you ever have an opportunity to take a roll on the mats with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, one thing (amongst their terrifying aptitude to manipulate you) will shock you more than the rest; effortless flow. They almost seem like they’re gently swaying on the energy of the exchange, anticipating your every move before constricting. Chappelle’s comedic style exhibits that same deadly flow.
At the conclusion of both “Equanimity” and “The Bird Revelation” Chappelle constructs closing bits around unlikely, abject scenarios from the pages of Black history. In the first he interacts with an Iraqi-American in the crowd and sets up a discussion about the death of Emmitt Till, a young African-American man, who wolf whistled at a white woman Carolyn Bryant outside a diner which resulted in the young man’s death. Till’s mother, who Chappelle calls a “motherfuckin’ gangster” leaves her son’s coffin open and his bloated remains helped stoked the fires of the Civil Rights movement.
The final bit of “The Bird Revelation” is a discussion of the novel “Pimp” by actual pimp Iceberg Slim, and a story where the wily pimp manipulates his “Bottom Bitch” (Chappelle explains that the novel’s definition of the slang is that it’s your best prostitute) to exceed her “miles.” The tale is a metaphor for the events which led to Chappelle’s refusal of a $50 million dollar Comedy Central contract, and his self-imposed exile to South Africa.
“Three Billboards,” “Equanimity” and “The Bird Revelation” all end with sour notes; a pursuit for empty justice, the revelations of lies that doomed an innocent man to death, and the horrors of being sexual livestock. Chappelle’s devastating insights though provide hope; to truly forgive and move forward, the answer isn’t empty satisfaction, it’s willing forgiveness that outside of something terrible, something beautiful and profound bloomed. Chappelle’s latest specials are raw, hilarious, brave and peerless.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) – ★★★½
Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation (2018) ★★★★★
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Frances McDormand ... Mildred
Lucas Hedges ... Robbie
Caleb Landry Jones ... Red Welby
Kerry Condon ... Pamela
Sam Rockwell ... Dixon
Woody Harrelson ... Willoughby
Abbie Cornish ... Anne
Amanda Warren ... Denise
Sandy Martin ... Momma Dixon
Peter Dinklage ... James
John Hawkes ... Charlie
Samara Weaving ... Penelope
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cinematography by: Ben Davis (“Guardians of the Galaxy” “Avengers: Age of Ultron”)
Editing by Jon Gregory (“In Bruges” “Donnie Brasco” “The Road”)
Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation (2018)
Directed by: Stan Lathan
Written by Dave Chappelle
Starring: Dave Chappelle
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.