Tag Archives: Ethan Coen

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Snark and Sentimentality

To prevent her daughter’s murder from falling out of the public eye and increase the chance of finding the culprit, Mildred (Frances McDormand; Fargo), a jumpsuit-wearing, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed mom, buys the titular billboards. She details the horrific crime and simultaneously places the blame for the lack of justice on the shoulders of the beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson; Zombieland). Chaos follows as local policeman try to save face, local townspeople retaliate, and Mildred doubles down on her cause. Many will compare this film to Fargo because of McDormand and the small-town murder, but this is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) signature brand of humor, distinct from the Coens. Mildred’s caustic behavior and McDonagh’s penchant for finding comedy in the macabre put it in a category of its own.

Without a doubt, this is McDormand’s film. There are few people who would be brash enough to knowingly anger and take on their entire town, but McDormand shows the tenacity and blatant disregard needed to make Mildred believable. As she faces the fallout from her actions, Mildred’s relentless pursuit of her goal and her choice, delectably obscene retorts are a joy to watch. At same time, she is still a mother suffering from the loss of her child and McDormand is able to display the subtle cracks of pain in Mildred’s otherwise thorny demeanor.

Mildred can stare down anyone that gets in her way.

For the first time in his film career, McDonagh tries to infuse some of the emotion from his best plays (read The Pillowman if you haven’t). In his previous films, the snarky, almost crass language, while often hilarious, prevented his stories from having a greater emotional impact. In Three Billboards, he supplements his humor with grief. The pain of a mother losing her daughter softens Mildred’s abrasiveness and prevents her aggressive, often militant actions from turning her into an outright unlikable character, but McDonagh finds most success in Willoughby’s story. Despite his setup as an incompetent police chief, Willoughby’s true nature is much more caring. As the terminally ill town leader and, more importantly, a father and husband, his inescapable fate becomes synonymous with the outcome of Mildred’s case. Willoughby has been searching for the killer, but, like with his cancer, his efforts haven’t made a difference. A short interlude where he ponders his demise will draw tears from most viewers. His gradual accretion of depth in the midst of the film’s otherwise eccentric antics is an unexpected, but welcome punch to the gut.

The effect of this gravitas is hindered by McDonagh’s control of tone. Rather than mixing the humor with the heart, these two emotions exist within separate spheres of influence. They don’t actively clash, but the disparate tones almost seem like different takes on the same story. Some scenes feature Mildred cursing like a sailor while others show the open wounds created by her daughter’s passing, but almost never both in the same scene. This is ultimately what prevents Three Billboards from reaching greatness. The humor of the film is still enjoyable and the grief shown has an impact, but without blending the two, McDonagh can’t achieve the complexity and balance needed to tackle the subject matter.

3/5 stars.

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.