Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**1/2) is a take worth leaving

Ebbing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy

There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.

One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”

There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.

Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.

One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.

The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.

Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.

Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he?  Or do we even care by then?

McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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The Way Way Back Sam Rockwell’s take on Bill Murray

The-Way-Way-Back-Quad-Poster

The Way Way Back – 2013

Written and Directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet

There are some laughs nestled in this summer home coming of age in the age of divorced parents melodrama.  There’s a fair amount of depressing stuff in here too.  The Way Way Back comes across as labored and not all that fun.

From the opening scene, when Steve Carell’s boyfriend Trent rates young Duncan (James) as a “3 out of 10,” the asshole buzzer goes off.  If this weren’t enough, much of the first 1/4 of the film sees Trent going out of his way to do the thing that every nightmare boyfriend of a single mother would do to her son.  That his mother (Colette) tolerates it is a sign of her desperation.  Fun stuff to watch.

Along the way, we get Owen (Rockwell), who treats Duncan like a pal, gives him a job and generally takes everything with a smart mouth and a kind heart.  It doesn’t take long at this point for one to expect to hear Owen call Duncan “Rudy the Rabbit” and train him for the big race.  The rest of the characters at the Water Park where they both work are not as overtly goofy as the cast of Meatballs, but it’s been almost 40 years since that film came out.  Some things have changed in film.  Not that much though.

Rockwell channels Bill Murray early on.  So much so that his character begins to get tedious.  Thankfully, he takes a right turn just about the time he pisses off Maya Rudolph’s Caitlyn.  Collette is the same character we see much of the time from her, somewhat broken, but not without her resolve.  Allison Janney is believable as the boozed up neighbor with two kids and a divorce of her own.  Carell does his job by hanging out with Corddry and hanging too much onto his wife (Peet).

The kids, outside of James, are indistinguishable.  That includes the kid with the weird eye.  There’s a few things said at the beach, like “I want to do drugs with my kid.”  Before one can be too shocked, we realize that they must have some way to push the rating to PG-13, even if it’s the furthest thing from a thought that any teen would ever have.

There’s a lot of positive buzz about this movie.  If anything, it’s because of James and Rockwell.  James is adorable in a confused way and Rockwell finds his groove at the point where the film requires it.  The heart to heart towards the end is simple and admirable.  It’s not much to recall later, though.  Not funny enough or dramatic enough to remember, but pleasant enough to sit through.

(*** out of *****)

Seven Psychopaths: Sam Rockwell out-Walken’s Walken.

Seven-Psychopaths-Posters-SliceSeven Psychopaths – 2012

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko

The craziest notion in the film Seven Psychopaths is the idea that Colin Farrell is any sort of writer.  I can buy the alcoholic part, even if it’s a cheap stereotype about the Irish.   But a writer?  No thanks.  I would believe an uncharismatic pretty boy actor perhaps…but back to the story.  There’s a crazy killer called the Jack of Diamonds going around knocking off members of the mafia.  There is a dog “borrowing” operation that run by two guys named Billy and Hans (Rockwell and Walken).  Billy is friends with Marty (Farrell) and Marty is a drunk.  Oh yeah, Billy stole the dog of a local mafia nut job named Charlie.  Charlie is pretty mad about this.  Stuff happens after that, but I would not want to ruin it for you.

There are some good performances in the film, most notably Rockwell and Walken.  This is Sam Rockwell at his best.  McDonagh’s dialogue rolls perfectly off his tongue.  It’s his performance alone that makes the movie a minor success.  When one  finally understands his warped perspective, it is hard not to agree with it.  Walken is as good as he has been since he’s found his late career fame.  He is subdued, which, in his case, is still more disturbed than most.  Not more than Rockwell.

For his part, Farrell has pulled out one of his better performances since McDonagh’s In Bruges.  He plays along incredulously with Walken and Rockwell, giving them enough of the lead for them to run a bit wild, but not out of control.  He spends much of the film sponging ideas off of his two nutty friends, making the idea of him as a screenwriter much more believable.

McDonagh gives evidence here that In Bruges was not a fluke.  His talent for screenwriting exceeds that of his direction, but he’s better than average there, too.  One of the best parts of the film is his exquisite self-analysis (through Walken) of his inability to write good female characters.  If there is one failing here, it is that there are more actors here than there are plot lines.  Some day, he may hit one out of the park.

(***1/2 out of *****)