This one is R. The content is pretty intense. I went into this movie knowing nothing about it outside the fact that the buzz was that it was amazing. I don't want to spoil anything for people who don't want to read my review, but I will stress that the content is pretty heavy. There's a lot of cursing. Probably way too much cursing. Like Logan, the script throws in language because it can at times, but it works better here. I do wish that the screenwriter challenged himself to limit the language, but what can I do?
DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh
I don't often go into movies completely blind. I heard that the pre-Oscar buzz was going to be about this film. One thing about trying to see all of the Oscar movies before the Oscars actually come out is that most of the movie are unable to be seen by the time that the list is revealed. There's a lot of guesswork that goes into these movies and I hate that. (Sorry, I ethically can't do the Oscar marathons that many of the theaters try sucking me into. That includes not abandoning my family for days at a time and the fact that I'm not really giving the individual movies a fair shake.) I also really like going to the movies, but that's a whole separate thing. I'm really glad that I didn't know too much about this movie. The only thing I knew was that the title was very similar to a very pretentious short play I wrote in college. Both titles seemed to try too hard. In this case, the billboards play a pretty vital role to the story, so I'm going to give it a pass.
I have one big question about the movie, but I think I'll get to that later. I want to address the main plot and how powerful the movie is. The premise of the billboards MINOR SPOILER is that it accuses the local police department of sitting on their hands when it comes to investigating the rape and death of the protagonist's daughter. Mildred, the protagonist, sees the corruption of the local police department and calls out the sheriff, played by Woody Harrelson, to continue his search for her daughter's rapist and killer. The sheriff also happens to be dying of cancer. The town is torn apart, deciding who is right in this very complex moral argument and that is a pretty dark movie. It is fascinating examining a movie where the good guys aren't that good and the bad guys...well, they're still pretty bad. But the real examination is that people are people and that people tend to be stuck in their own moral bias, right or wrong. The movie is extremely powerful and if you just watch it for the execution of an extremely complex emotional storyline, please catch this movie. It really works. There is so much that I had to think about. There are moments where the movie gets really really preachy, but for the most part, this movie isn't a scolding. It comments on society quite well, but not from a "one side is dumb, the other side is smart." It does condemn the clearly amoral, represented by Sam Rockwell's Dixon. But even Dixon is shown to be ultimately flexible, given the proper stimulus. It is refreshing to show that people and characters can change. The movie definitely has social commentary to it, but it is frightening to think that maybe people only change in stories versus reality. Either this movie has the most optimistic view of humanity or it has the most sombering view on humanity. I'll think about it and get back to you. (Okay, I probably won't get back to you, but I'll at least try to think about it.) Mildred, the protagonist, often spouts a more condemning-from-on-high attitude, judging and attacking all those who do not stand with her. It's so bizarre that her crusade is a moral one, but she burns bridges with everyone along her way. It is refreshing to see such a flawed protagonist fight for such a noble cause. She is persecuted and attacked, but she ultimately makes bad choices in this light. I often see stories of those people attacked for their beliefs and handling it like champs. There is something to be respected to see these saintlike people fighting the good cause in the way I know it should be fought. But those narratives tend to become saccharine. (Again, I stress. When you are persecuted, don't lower yourselves to the strategies of your enemies.) More rarely do we get the inverse. Mildred never considers abandoning her cause, but rather examines the darker parts of herself to see how far she is willing to push back against the oncoming tide. I'm not going to spoil the movie for you, but it is refreshing to hear that McDonagh had this interpretation in mind. How do I know? Peter Dinklage has a speech towards the end of the movie discussing how Mildred isn't necessarily a good person. It's pretty great.
Now to the part that confuses me. The tone of this movie is bizarre. I get the vibe that Martin McDonagh is a huge Coen brothers fan. This movie gets very dark, as is often the case in movies like Fargo. But the movie is just littered with jokes. Too many jokes. There are far too many jokes in this film. The worst part is that they all crush. I found myself guffawing and then I realized what the scene was about and I just grew ashamed. I get it and I even agree with it. The bleakest of things need to take that edge off. Darkness and misery lead to emo stories and the real world is full of funny moments that make us aware of the pain around us. I support that. But the movie packed in a few too many jokes or character moments that really stopped the movie from completely driving that emotional point home. It almost felt like, at times, that the movie was afraid to be completely emotionally vulnerable. The comedy was a safety net. I didn't have that much time to stew between each moment because someone was cracking a joke or a ridiculous character walked in. This also affects the performances in the long run. I love Sam Rockwell. Rest assured, he does his job in this one. But the job he does is a very specific and stylized choice. Rather than seeing the true face of someone who would resort to torture when it comes to white power, I saw Sam Rockwell pull out this absolutely bizarre character. It fits tonally with the movie, so I know that is what he was asked to do. But sometimes having characters avoid the obvious joke gives the story a degree of nuance. I kind of would have loved Rockwell's character to scare me a little. There was never a time when I could actually imagine him torturing someone. One scene in the movie involving Dixon is remarkably violent. But it is this dark comedic violence. It isn't impassioned. Rather, his calm demeanor during this scene kind of evokes a "what am I watching?" response. It's a disturbing scene that is almost afraid to live in this moment of discomfort. That's kind of how the whole movie plays out. Mildred cracks wise, despite the fact that she can be an absolutely horrible human being. Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, curses like a storm in front of his kids as a joke. He's likable, sure, but he is far from being the real person that we saw in True Detective. In True Detective, he even gets a few laughs, but he never compromises the intensity of the scene. Because of this combination of darkness and laughs, each scene fights for catharsis rather than rumination. It's just a very odd choice and I don't know if I would have cut some of those jokes. But that's the author / director's tone. I think he was shooting for that, but I just don't think I would have gone the same route.
There's one scene, and I think the Catholic Movie Group on Facebook would back me up, that just rubbed me the wrong way. There's a scene where a Catholic priest comes to visit Mildred. Admittedly, he might have pushed her the wrong way with his request. I wouldn't have minded had Mildred ripped him a new one, but her argument against the priesthood is absolute garbage. I know that people are mad at the Church, but c'mon. This was a cheap shot. I started by saying that this movie doesn't try to bully. This scene was the exception to the rule. The logical argument there was absolute crap and it actually got me pretty mad. I've watched movies like Spotlight and, while I didn't love it cinematically, I respected that it was trying to heal a wound. This felt like political preachiness and I don't think that kind of bullying should exist. If a film wants to comment on the Church's sexual abuse issues, please do. That argument was such a stretch of the imagination. I can only hope that the interpretation of this scene is one of Mildred going too far and burning bridges when she should be discussing, but I don't think it is.
The movie is absolutely fantastic. As of this point, I wouldn't mind if this swept a lot of the Oscars for this year. It has a lot of faults, but it is a fascinating movie. Again, the tone is a little off for a lot of the film, but most of that comes from "I wouldn't make that choice" rather than a cinema sin. I hope to see this movie fly because it really is very impressive.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.