Tag Archives: In Bruges

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.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Finally rounding out the year’s lineup of video game adaptations is Assassin’s Creed. The popular video game franchise launched in 2007 and sparked eight mainline sequels and several more spinoffs selling over 90 million copies across the games. Unlike many adaptations, the premise, while far-fetched, provides an intriguing setup for a blend of sci-fi and historical action. After he is executed by lethal injection, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender; Shame) wakes up in a strange research facility with Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard; Midnight in Paris), a scientist leading the Animus project. The Animus, a giant mechanical arm that connects to the spinal cord of the user, taps into data stored in DNA to relive the memories of ancestors. Sophia and her father want to use Callum to find the Apple of Eden, a mysterious object that can control humanity, through his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who is the last person they know to have had it.

The film spends far too much time on exposition. This is a common mistake in storytelling in interactive entertainment but ironically it was never an issue in the early Assassin’s Creed games. The games would have the player in the historical setting for at least 80% or more of the time, but the screenplay calls for the majority of the film to be in the present so they can explain the adversarial history of the Assassins and the Templars. The games threw you into the action and let the player, along with the main character, discover the greater story as they played, but the screenwriters here instead opted to stuff in as much setup as possible for the sequels that were clearly in mind at the film’s conception. The movie opens with an explanatory text crawl that is groan-worthy and further exposition is always just around the corner. Unfortunately, all this additional explanation only weakens the story. Each further detail creates plot holes rather than filling them. If the writers had been willing to leave more unanswered, the backstory would have been intriguing rather than perplexing or, in many cases, silly.

The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.
The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.

Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) is able to fluidly adapt the series’s action. Known for incorporating an acrobatic style based on using counter attacks, the fighting could have easily felt distant without the interactive element. This happened in 2010 with Ubisoft’s other major film production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the signature parkour didn’t translate to the big screen. Combat is clearly sped up, but the increased speed isn’t overly disorienting. Kurzel also makes the unexpected decision to transition back and forth between Aguilar fighting in the past and Callum fighting through the same experiences in the present. Doing so adds an extra dimension to the action (literally) as we see how Callum is affected by his time in the Animus.

This is the second time this year we’ve had a talented indie director take on a large video game movie and the result is again a moderate success. Kurzel was able to maintain some of the harsh realism found in his previous work as he moved to this larger project. The historical scenes don’t try to emulate the lighthearted tone of Marvel films or the self-seriousness of the DC extended universe. The world feels dirty and unforgiving. He also has the benefit of an incredibly talented and, more importantly, committed cast. Even minor roles have their moments with actors like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) stopping by to add gravitas to the screenplay. Kurzel isn’t able to escape the forced exposition typical of the genre, but the unique premise combined with his gritty staging of action scenes make the film stand out in the crowded blockbuster space.

3/5 stars.