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Feb 22/18

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Movie); The Sinking of the Houston and Cat Person (Short Stories)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Movie) written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

You’d think some studio Exec would have nixed this title. Why so dull and prosaic? Is it hinting that the movie will be one of those nitty-gritty things belonging to the genre that I call "Pastoral Grunge"? (Examples: The Station Master, All the Real Girls, Winter’s Bone and George Washington) This one does have some aspects of that kind of movie, what with its many shots of scruffy countryside, plus a down-home, small town ambiance. But it also verges into Southern Gothic territory, with its many weird characters and outlandish behaviour.

The opening premise is that eight months have passed since Mildred’s teen-age daughter has been raped and murdered. So Mildred (Frances McDormand) does what any devoted mom would do: she rents three billboards outside of town and plasters them with messages taunting the local sheriff for not making any arrests. To my mind, though, the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) sounds quite reasonable when he tries to explain to Mildred that the cops have done everything they can. So I find it hard to get on board with Mildred. Sheer vengeance isn’t a motive that stirs a lot of sympathy in me – although, granted, it may have more traction with some viewers in today’s world, with all the outrage over sexual abuse.

Not long into this movie, I was reminded of my reaction to the theatre of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of this piece. I’m thinking particularly of his play, The Pillowman. It was excessively dramatic, exaggerated and over-the-top. Just like this movie. Every scene in it is gripping; they all play well. But is this supposed to have anything to do with real life? Or is it just meant to shake us up with one shock after another?

Consider, for example, some of the ingredients of this over spiced stew that is Three Billboards. Piled on top of the rape/murder, we have:

  • the sherriff in Mildred’s sights happens to be dying of cancer;
  • a psychotic cop has a thing for torturing black people and everybody knows it;
  • that cop’s mother coaches him on ways to screw people;
  • a flashback shows that a mother cursed her daughter with her tragic fate;
  • Mildred’s scuzzy ex-husband has a nineteen-year-old sweetie (who happens to be a ditz);
  • a guy throws another guy out a window for no reason except that the thrower has a mad-on;
  • a person grabs a drill out of a dentist’s hand and drills a hole in the dentist’s fingernail;
  • a person who commits suicide leaves notes that cause consternation all over town;
  • someone is unfairly blamed for causing the suicide;
  • somebody accidentally coughs blood into someone else’s face.

These townsfolk are so unruly that this feels like the kind of movie where you might expect, at any point, to see a sight such as somebody dragging a dog on a rope behind a speeding car. And yet, we’re treated to such poetic touches as Rene Fleming singing "The Last Rose of Summer" while a man is trying to escape from a burning building. The effect is thrilling - but what’s the point? Is it a reference to the murdered girl? Or is it just meant to strike a contrast between the sentiment of the song and the horror of the circumstances?

No question that the acting throughout is marvellous. Given that Mildred’s essentially just an extremely angry person, Ms. McDormand runs the risk of giving us a one-note performance. But she manages, with a few smirks here and there, to make Mildred fascinating, if hard to understand. She has a wicked wit when she chooses to use it in her dead-pan style. Woody Harrelson, as the sheriff, is a wonderfully complex character. Sam Rockwell deserves all the acclaim he’s getting for the rogue cop. The mom (Sandy Martin) who encourages him to screw people – with her spiky brushcut and a face like a snake’s – comes across as the kind of gal you definitely would not want to encounter in a dark alley. Caleb Landry Jones makes a poignant impression as the hapless city employee responsible for renting the billboards to Milred. There’s no reason why Cedric, another cop, should be so strange, but it’s a dandy bit of acting. (I couldn’t find the actor’s name.) John Hawkes, as Mildred’s ex, is so creepy that you wonder how he and she could have produced such a sweet son (Lucas Hedges). I found myself longing for a curtain call to cheer these actors but also to see them smile and show us that they’re "normal" people after all.

Ultimately, the movie does come around to some meaningful insight into human beings. And the ending is mercifully inconclusive. But the preponderance of the movie is so heavy-handed that I came away from it seriously resentful. It felt like I was being riled up not by any truth but only because the auteur wanted to get me riled up. That works up to a point – viewers certainly are impressed – but what are we to take from it?

New Yorker Notables:

The Sinking of the Houston (Short Fiction) by Joseph O’Neill, October 30,2017

A dad is telling us about life with his teenage sons. (No mention of a mother). It’s a wry, realistic depiction of how a man in that situation copes. What’s most remarkable about the story, though, is that it takes a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn about two-thirds of the way in. You’ve been thinking all along that the story is about something but then it turns out to be about something else. Could this be because the piece might consist of excerpts taken from a novel? (That’s often the case with New Yorker fiction.) Or is the point of the story that life doesn’t always fit the conventions of narrative fiction: we think we’re headed in a certain direction but suddenly we’re headed somewhere else?

Cat Person (Short Fiction) by Kristen Roupenian, December 11, 2017

It’s hard to discuss this one without giving away too much of the story. Let’s just say it starts with a charming flirtation between a young woman and a man who meets her at the concession stand where she works in a movie theatre. I’ve never read anything that conveys so convincingly – and in such contemporary terms – the ups and downs of the beginning of a romantic relationship. Ultimately, the story reveals the complications and misunderstandings that are so much a part of the good and the bad of being human.

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