• [The Daily] Venice + Toronto 2017: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    By David Hudson

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    “Some films have a heat that makes you shrink from the cinema screen,” begins the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “After this morning’s screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I had to check my eyebrows were still intact. The British-Irish director Martin McDonagh set the Venice Film Festival ablaze with this gut-twisting, cinder-black comedy about communal guilt and individual forgiveness, which roars off down some extraordinarily brassy narrative gambits, diesel fumes wafting in its wake, and with the ambient bombast cranked up through the roof. It surpasses McDonagh’s sensational debut In Bruges, and more than makes amends for Seven Psychopaths, its overthought, overwrought follow-up.”

    The Guardian’s Xan Brooks seems singed as well, noting that McDonagh “tosses [Three Billboards] into competition, underarm, like a firecracker, where it promptly explodes in a flash of jokes, a splash of blood and a twisting plume of ornate dialogue. It remains to be seen how this one will bed down; how deep an impression it leaves once the smell of cordite has faded. But in the moment, good heavens, this feels like Bonfire night and the Fourth of July.”

    For David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “this is a corrosively humorous drama of festering injustice, Shakespearean rage, grave reckoning and imperfect redemption, which unfolds with the epic dimensions of a classic Western showdown. . . . It's been months since Mildred [Frances McDormand] heard a word from cops about the investigation of her teenage daughter's horrific rape and murder by incineration, so she takes radical steps to light a flame under the ass of local law enforcement. Following a rudimentary check of the legal restrictions on billboard advertising, she has three signs put up, their blunt messages in boldface uppercase on a blood-red background reading, in order: Raped While Dying; And Still No Arrests; How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

    “When she accuses Willoughby of being ‘too busy torturing black folks’ to solve her daughter’s murder, there’s an unmistakable echo of the case of the recently pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who in his anti-immigrant crackdown fever ran an office that failed to investigate hundreds of sex crimes against children,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “Yet the black-and-white moral lines quickly bleed into shades of gray. . . . Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t a righteous demagogic attack on the complacency of the police, or on masculine violence and privilege—though it is a meditation on those things. It’s not a whodunit with a clear villain and a connect-the-dots suspense plot that will lead to his capture—though it plays off our desire for all that.”

    For Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan, though, this is the “film with the best title and trailer of the year, but which fails to fully deliver on the promise of either. . . . Anchored by a funny, foul-mouthed performance from McDormand, McDonagh’s daringly-structured dark comedy is rich and layered and often laugh-out-loud funny but trips over constant tonal shifts. . . . A strong cast which also includes Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones pulls hard together, straining for the piece to cohere, although Australian actress Abbie Cornish is palpably ill at ease.”

    “While McDonagh’s screenplay is ingenious, and McDormand its pole star, Rockwell has a major transformation to pull off and he does so brilliantly, negotiating the tricksy turns and shifts of tone McDonagh fashions,” notes Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist. “If you want to say it’s Rockwell’s best performance to date we certainly won’t stop you.”

    “Harrelson also deserves mention for a humane and strangely moving performance,” adds John Bleasdale at CineVue. “In the end, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a multi-layered piece with such swathes of great dialogue that it will no doubt reward—if not demand—multiple viewings.”

    Updates, 9/6: “The surface stuff, which gains a lot from sideline characters such as the felt-table whiz played by Peter Dinklage, is all very lively and flirtily outrageous,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “But the deeper stuff is more satisfying still. . . . The film is also notable for featuring Caleb Landry Jones in a role that, for the first time, does not make you immediately want to see him brutally beaten. So, of course his character is brutally beaten. Carter Burwell’s Morricone-inflected score is a treat, and the editing by Jon Gregory, who also cut McDonagh’s first feature In Bruges and is also a regular Mike Leigh man, is fleet and seamless. It’s McDonagh’s most satisfying movie, a very juicy and resonant treat.”

    “McDonagh has crafted the ultimate bait and switch, a film that carries its weary nihilism with a surprisingly light touch, an affectation later dropped in favor of an unexpected message of grace,” writes Ben Croll for IndieWire. “Which is to say that not only is Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri the director’s most accomplished film yet, it’s also his most compassionate.”

    “There aren’t many writer-directors who could tell a story of small-town rape, murder, grief and guilt at the same time as taking you down all sorts of black-comic paths and having immense fun with the writing and acting along the way,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun.

    “It's yet another triumph for McDonagh with this one,” adds Thomas Humphrey at ScreenAnarchy, “but also another great festival achievement for the feel-good success story that has been Film4 in recent years. This is thankfully something that follows the lukewarm reception of Film4's other production Lean on Pete in the festival this week, so we can only be grateful.”

    Ed Gibbs for Little White Lies: “Everyone involved appears to be having a ball with the material, and who can blame them? It’s every bit as good as its trailer suggested.”

    Updates, 9/7:Three Billboards is a thoroughly entertaining film,” grants Kristin Thompson, “but I think there is at least one problem involving the motivation for the presence of a mysterious stranger who becomes a suspect. On the whole the story works well, with some unexpected changes of heart among the characters and an ending that suggests the possibility of healing within the town.”

    Writing for Vanity Fair, Guy Lodge notes that McDonagh’s “no student of naturalism—like Aaron Sorkin, he writes all characters in a single, singular voice, and you can like it or lump it—but his richly quotable, mile-a-minute gutter poetry cuts directly to cruel, bloody-hearted truths. After the meta-upon-meta frippery of Seven Psychopaths, he’s regained the needling, morally burdened wit of In Bruges.

    At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab finds that “McDonagh sometimes falls into the same trap seen in his previous films, where he chooses the darkest, most extreme option on offer, such as in a flashback scene between Mildred and her daughter, which feels overly melodramatic. This being his third film, there is also a familiarity to his gags on racism and homophobia, which at times feel a bit obvious and superfluous. Finally, there is not enough delineation between the characters’ dialogue—for example, they all seem to be experts at delivering off-the-cuff wisecracks. These issues mean that Three Billboards is as flawed as its central characters. Luckily, it’s also just as funny and interesting.”

    Update, 9/10: Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov assures us that “you can expect a new fact to drip down about every fifteen minutes to ‘complicate’ your opinion of McDormand, Rockwell or Harrelson. If I know that this’ll happen, there’s really not much complication: we learn a key fact about Rockwell’s character halfway through that’s supposed to perform one such pivot, but a stupid drunk racist asshole is still a stupid drunk racist asshole as far as I’m concerned. All that complication is really pretty simple, and don’t even get me started on the scene were McDormand tells the fakest-looking CG deer since Almodovar’s Julieta (is this a trend now?) that maybe God doesn’t exist and we’re all terrified—this being a McDonagh joint, I knew something along those lines had to be coming, but it’s still a pain. The film is just fine, but there’s only so far I can go with this kind of screenwriting.”

    Updates, 9/11:Three Billboards is so invested in its loquacious characters that it seems, at a certain point, to give up on doing much more than just pairing them off and knocking them together,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “If I’m reluctant to full-on endorse this off-kilter, unpredictable Missouri gabfest, it’s because McDonagh devises a superb dramatic scenario—two people with a begrudging mutual respect, on opposite sides of an impossible situation, headed straight at each other like cars playing chicken—and then kind of squiggles off in other directions. But maybe that detour-heavy plotting is a strength, not a liability.”

    For Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, “McDonagh’s latest work is simply exceptional; a film so rich with narrative fluidity, profane laughs, standout performances and complex character studies that its tremendous emotional hits–often arriving when you least expect them–might just leave you agog.”

    Updates, 9/15: “Yes, it’s in the Tarantino-to-Coens bandwidth that both McDonagh brothers (Martin and his fellow filmmaker John Michael) find comfortable to their talents,” grants Sight & Sound editor Nick James, “but it can boast of a more capacious feel for nuance than most. Brit cinematographer Ben Davis creates that space deftly with calm images and Carter Burwell’s score gives it the right mood of folksy melancholia (song choices are dead on apt too). McDormand, the queen of cold quipping, has never been so laconic, or tragic; Harrelson gives off the generous bonhomie that lights up his best roles, but it’s Rockwell who’s the real revelation here, winning the sympathy that only the best of Calibans capture with a performance of an astonishing range of awkwardnesses. I loved it.”

    “McDonagh’s script treats its dark subject with just the right amount of irony, without ever turning Mildred’s horrific loss into some sort of parody,” writes Leonard Goi for Cinema Scope.

    “McDonagh’s simply perfect script is never quite what you expect it to be,” adds Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com.

    For Mike Ryan at Uproxx, “as a native Missourian myself, frankly, there’s a lot going on for me in this film. And not only is it my favorite movie I saw in Toronto, right now it’s my favorite film of 2017.”

    Update, 9/17: “It’s a deep, complex, hilarious, emotionally blindsiding look into truth, justice and the ugly American way,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear, “and hands down, the single best thing we saw at Toronto. Let’s hope it winning the festival’s Audience Award is only the start of its statue-grabbing haul.”

    Updates, 9/18: “As a non-fan of In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), I was pleasantly surprised by the grim comic force of Martin McDonagh’s morality tale, a Southern Gothic hamlet pushed through the filter of British Catholic guilt,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “What McDonagh lacks in visual eloquence he makes up in thorny performances and staccato prose, with the occasional searing moment that stitches all elements together—a bout between McDormand and Harrelson suddenly brought to a halt by a cancerous cough that leaves a face speckled with blood and loquacious enemies in silent solidarity.”

    “McDonagh’s mannered distortion of characters into foul extremes and narrative convenience evoked a London playwright’s stunt-pulling more than genuine lived drama,” finds Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold.

    Update, 9/19: “It is a film that convinces precisely because it initially comes across as unappealing and vulgar—in the etymological sense of the word, from vulgus, the common people,” writes Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian in the Notebook. “Martin McDonagh has taken a tragic storyline in the grand tradition of film noir, the genre that addresses absolute evil, the evil that should rightfully remain faceless, and grafted it onto an extremely solid, practical foundation. The clothes and the words smack of earth, of people with dirty hands, with breath as bad as the smell of their shoes.”

    Update, 10/3: Talking to McDormand for the New York Times Magazine, Jordan Kisner suggests that she tends to play “profane women. Or rageful, or violent.” McDormand: “I mean, I know I’m profane. And outspoken. But I don’t know, they’re fun! . . . My politics are private, but many of my feminist politics cross over into my professional life. Because I portray female characters, so I have the opportunity to change the way people look at them. Even if I wasn’t consciously doing that, it would happen anyway, just because of how I present as a woman, or as a person. I present in a way that’s not stereotypical, even if I’m playing a stereotypical role. I can’t subtract that from myself anymore. I could when I was younger.”

    Updates, 11/3:Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has the makings of a crowd-pleaser, replete with righteous monologues to cue seal-like applause from a left-leaning audience,” writes Nick Pinkerton in Film Comment, “but this face in the crowd finds McDonagh too clever to be funny, and congenitally incapable of locating a single distinguishing image, either in fairy tale Bruges or in tumbledown Appalachia. These failings are only exacerbated by McDonagh’s indifference to exploring the specifics of the flyover country where he sets his scene—the specificity that grounds, say, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, or the work of an Elmore Leonard or a Charles Willeford, source of the bon mot: ‘Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of black humor.’ And while McDonagh’s film doesn’t lack for gallows humor and pitch-dark stuff, it’s in the department of truth that it comes up short.”

    “Not since Fargo (1996) has [McDormand] found a character of such fibre,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “She doesn’t pitch it to us, still less try to make it palatable; she seems to state Mildred, presenting her as a given fact, like someone unrolling a map.”

    “When the film closes with McDormand and Rockwell—perhaps the two most disparate characters in the film—sharing a quiet moment of commonality between them, McDonagh shows an optimism that solidifies Three Billboards as his best work yet,” finds C. J. Prince at 4:3.

    Updates, 11/11: “Mr. McDonagh likes to play comedy against violence and to wring laughs out of the unspeakable,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “This kind of juxtaposition (in his movies, at any rate) can produce laughter that catches in your throat, giving you pause and maybe provoking thought about why exactly you are giggling. But he doesn’t always know his A material from his B, or doesn’t care; his jokes can be uninterestingly glib with tiny, bloodless pricks that are less about challenging the audience than about obscuring the material’s clichés and overriding theatricality. Everything fits together too neatly in Three Billboards, even when chaos descends, but the performers add enough rough texture so that it doesn’t always feel so worked.”

    “It turns out that,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “except for a few remote-controlled torture devices rebuilt from a Rube Goldberg funhouse, Jigsaw—the eighth installment in the Saw franchise, which is in theaters now and bears a Rotten Tomatoes rating of thirty-two per cent—is basically the same film as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the widely touted Oscar candidate that, with a rating of ninety-six per cent, opens this Friday. Both films are rooted in a fanatical quest for justice born not of an abstract devotion to principle but of a personal agony that sparks anger and cruelty and leads to gore and mayhem.”

    “The last half-hour goes a little gonzo for my taste, with coincidences and bodies piling up fast, and there are at least two apparent endings before the real one comes,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens. “But at its best, Three Billboards has two important things McDonagh’s previous films lacked: a lived-in sense of place and a vividly drawn female protagonist.”

    “At first, the prospect of McDonagh skewering some racist Missouri cops delighted me,” writes April Wolfe in the Village Voice. But then “I found the Irishman McDonagh out of his league in handling uniquely American ills. . . . Three Billboards seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life. In some ways, watching this film is like reading those alt-right fashion profiles of Richard Spencer that insisted we overlook his campaign of quiet terror and find common ground with him. Nope.”

    “This is life in a small American town as viewed by someone who seems to have spent no more than a few drive-through minutes in one,” agrees Time’s Stephanie Zacharek.

    “McDonagh has wound up making an incendiary film for the present moment,” writes Guy Lodge for the Guardian, “one that arrives on screens just as angry mass awareness of male-on-female abuse is reaching a new peak in a variety of realms, but none more prominently than Hollywood itself. . . . The films that best capture the sociopolitical mood of their particular era are never the ones that set out to do so; you don’t capture the zeitgeist by ripping from the headlines. So it proves with Three Billboards, a film that has largely crashed into relevance.”

    Interviews with McDonagh: Ariston Anderson (Filmmaker) and Daniel Schindel (Film Stage). And with Rockwell: Gregory Ellwood (Playlist) and Mike Ryan (Uproxx).

    Update, 11/12:Three Billboards is the kind of momentary crowd-pleasing entertainment that will satiate audiences looking for the movie equivalent of a knee to the crotch—which not so incidentally is one of its defining images,” writes Reverse Shot co-editor Michael Koresky. “McDonagh is here so aggressive in eliciting satisfied hoots and hollers from his audience that his film fumbles even on the level of wish fulfillment.”

    Update, 11/13: For WhereToWatch, Julie Jacobs talks with McDonagh “about how he balances the ‘light and the dark’ in his stories, what he won’t relent on during production, and why you can introduce him to mom.”

    Update, 11/14: Rolling Stone’s David Fear talks with McDonagh—and Rockwell: “I started putting pictures of Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on my mirror. I also had pictures of Barney Fife and Travis Bickle . . . so there you go.”

    Update, 11/15: Niki Caro (Whale Rider) talks with McDonagh about the film on The Director’s Cut (21’00”).

    Updates, 11/16:Three Billboards’ range spans between anguish and comedy in ways that can seem both dizzyingly daring and narratively pat, but never is the film dull or unthinking,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle, where Richard Whittaker interviews McDonagh: “What I would hope that people would take away is what I take away, and what bubbled through in the edit, is the hope of these people, and the possibility of change. We’re very truthful about the pain and the rage that Mildred is going through, and what people in the country are going through. We’re not sugar-coating it, but we are hopeful that people can change if we see a little of the humanity in each other.”

    “McDonagh is a craftsman who places each word with wicked precision,” writes Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly. “For all of McDonagh’s cleverness, his power resides with his grasp of people.”

    Update, 11/17: If Sean Burns, writing for WBUR, “had to pick a movie for a time capsule that will sum up for future generations what it feels like to be alive at this particular moment in the benighted year of our Lord 2017, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the only logical choice.”

    Venice and Toronto 2017 indexes. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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