Birthdays, Manhunt, and the Closing Film: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
So today – well, yesterday now, look, you know what I mean and that I write these on the day, hush – was my birthday. This was the second straight year in which I celebrated my birthday away from home… scratch that, away from my family, and both instances have honestly been vastly more enjoyable than those times I’ve had to spend them in the company of any number of my extended family. Part of that is because my family is utterly goddamn exhausting, and getting away from them for even just a few hours is like pure bliss, I’m not even joking. Most of it, however, is because I’ve been down here on the “job” for both years, which allows me to focus on something other than the continued terrifying encroachment of my own mortality for the day instead.
I hate birthdays. Well, that’s not true, I hate my own birthday. I don’t like pomp and ceremony accompanying anything I do, anything that blows up my own importance, or acts like I am worth celebrating in any way – yes, I do realise the irony in my self-loathing modesty and these articles, you’re real clever for pointing that out. I don’t like people making a fuss over me, it makes me feel like either a fraud or a burden depending on the context. Plus, as previously inferred, I am forever anxious and pre-occupied in my thoughts about my eventual death, of growing old and wasting away, and of how I am using my time alive now. Even just typing that sentence sent my mind racing and a shot of pure fear going straight through my heart, so birthdays, as you can probably gather, aren’t exactly events I cherish on my calendar.
Fortunately, these past two years, I’ve had the Festival to largely take my mind off of it all. Last year, my birthday fell on the second Saturday of the Fest, so I was fully pre-occupied with running about all corners (read: the Leicester Square corners) of London, trying to find enough films to equal an acceptable amount of content for that day’s article. So, outside of my complimentary birthday cookie from Subway, I didn’t really focus on it at all. Today, however, I had a Press Screening first thing in the morning that would almost definitely provide enough substantive coverage on its own that I didn’t need to run around finding other films to watch, and I had a comp ticket for another film in the late-afternoon that I wanted to see. Other than those, I had a free day on my hands, which was good since I’ve honestly been ready for home these past couple of days – we’ll talk more about that tomorrow – and meant that I was able to pre-arrange hanging out with a friend from uni that I hadn’t seen in person since… well, since the last day of my coverage last year.
It sucks now that I’m only able to see friends that I used to see almost every day roughly once a year, since they’re off having lives and being too far away from me to go and visit. I feel like it puts added pressure on these meet-ups needing to mean something and be in some way important and memorable, like it’s not enough to just hang out and shoot the shit about nonsense. That’s behaviour I’m trying to unlearn, and today was a good day, anyway. We caught up, talked random shit about various things, got some very nice sourdough pizza from a little pizza place near Tottenham Court Road, and then I got to introduce her to the works of John Woo, which she had never seen before. It was all nice, and relaxing, and was a nice reminder that I’m not completely alone. It just requires work. Lots of it.
Speaking of work, let’s talk about my final two movies at this year’s Festival. I’ve noticed this trend in recent years of UK directors best known for expressly British and Irish feeling films taking flight to the US in order to make empty American genre movie homages. I only recognised it as a trend late last year when I caught John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, a completely empty homage to excessive-force cop movies and TV shows of the 70s, albeit with a large sense of humour, after he’d made his name on the defiantly-Irish Calvary and The Guard. But after that, I caught on to others just like the elder McDonagh brother. Andrea Arnold junked in her work on the gritty council estate drama Fish Tank and period piece Jane Eyre to make her version of the languid American road trip movie, American Honey. Whilst Ben Wheatley chose to follow up the wildly ambitious British satire High Rise, and others like his 60s British Horror homage Kill List, with his ode to both Sam Peckinpah and Looney Tunes in Free Fire.
Patient Zero for this is undoubtedly Martin McDonagh, who followed up his instant-classic 2008 debut In Bruges, which will be a full decade old by the time his latest film comes out in the UK Jesus Christ, with 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, which was his take on a Tarantino-type film. I found Seven Psychopaths to be fine, and even really entertaining at points, but also so desperate to appear cleverer than it was that it kind of disappeared up its own arse, and that made it disposable. Upon hindsight, you could probably see Arnold and Wheatley and the elder McDonagh taking notes from it for their own American excursions. Namely, in big bold letters and underlined a few times for emphasis: don’t have pretensions to being anything bigger than you are if you haven’t got anything to say.
Martin’s latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (B-), is a lot better than Seven Psychopaths. In fact, McDonagh has actually come back with stuff to say about America, this time around. The title refers to a trio of disused billboards on the largely undriven road into the small town of Ebbing – the road and the town have largely been ignored by those outside of it ever since the nearby highway was completed back in the 80s – that have been bought up by angry, grief-stricken mother Mildred (Frances McDormand). Their text reads: “Raped whilst dying.” “No arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Mildred’s intention here is to shock the local police force into getting off their asses and finding a breakthrough in the case of her murdered daughter nine months prior, since they’ve yet to find any leads and haven’t gotten in touch with Mildred in months about the matter.
It turns out to be a lot more complicated than that, however. The local police force haven’t been lazy – although they are prejudiced, confrontational, hilariously corrupt boobs – and there isn’t a giant conspiracy threatening to keep Mildred from the closure she so desperately seeks; there really are no leads and nothing for the police to be able to go on. Plus, her insistence in calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) specifically, reasoning that “the buck’s gotta stop somewhere,” is more than a little insensitive, given that he’s dying of cancer, an open secret that most of the town knows. And there’s also the fact that Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), was a cop himself and used to beat her constantly until they got divorced. For their part, the local police do not take too kindly to having their competence challenged, especially not Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a stupendously inept perpetual drunk with a hard-on for police brutality and an ingrained racism that’s led to him being accused of torturing Black suspects before, and Mildred’s stunt has galvanised them, but more with the aim of getting those billboards down by any pressure necessary.
What McDonagh is looking at with Three Billboards is specifically shot through a rural Midwestern American bent. The insular, “people talk” nature of small-town America, and how that leads to much casual deep-seated intolerance that goes unchecked and unchallenged by almost everyone. The police’s complete and total inability to take criticism, and how that old-school Boy’s Club mentality leads to otherwise “decent” cops like Willoughby giving cowboy nutcases like Dixon as wide a berth as possible out of some misguided sense of camaraderie, as well as their refusal to properly change and grow with the times unless forced to by outside sources. The lingering effects of abuse and the all-consuming thrall of grief via anger, with the difficulty of letting go and moving on, instead lashing out at anybody that may be in the way of achieving that mythical sense of closure. McDonagh’s comfort in the land of moral greyness really helps in this regard; everybody is far more complex than at first appears, and everybody is capable of surprising actions, in both good and very bad ways.
McDonagh is also supported by great performances across the board, particularly from Frances McDormand – who quite simply does not give bad performances, but is on near-career-best form here, bringing a fiery intensity and take-no-shit front that hides the deep pain and grieving centre – and Sam Rockwell – who similarly never gives anything less than 100% to his performances, and is finally given another script that supports his considerable acting talent instead of asking him to merely coast by on charisma. Three Billboards’ cinematography by Ben Davis is also fantastic, capturing the crushing smallness of the titular town magnificently, and managing some truly excellent individual shots throughout, such as a late-film setpiece at night at the billboards. Plus, it’s also a very funny film, because McDonagh is, if absolutely nothing else, a pro at rat-a-tat bad-taste dialogue that’s filled with legitimate wit and sounds phenomenal coming out of the mouths of his actors. This is very dark comedy, but it’s comedy that almost always hits the mark, more frequently and just plain better than almost every proper comedy released so far this year.
However, I’m expecting you have already seen the grade assigned to Three Billboards and have been patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since. For one thing, Three Billboards is too busy a film, having a few too many characters running about that are just utterly superfluous to the story being told and resultantly end up wasting the talented actors assigned to them. Worst off is Peter Dinklage as James, a would-be suitor for Mildred who’s in the film for about 10 minutes and sadly only really contributes by being the source of McDonagh’s obsession with making jokes about dwarves who are aware of their existences as sources of offensive comedy for other people.
But the real problem with Three Billboards is one that has unfortunately been carried over from Seven Psychopaths. Even with the caveat of this being a dark comedy, Three Billboards has a massive, crippling tonal problem, where things can switch on a dime from black comedy to straight drama. This is not just on a scene-by-scene basis, although there is an especially jarring moment late on in the film where an outwardly comedic scene is immediately followed up by a sequence of very serious drama that I think was supposed to get some kind of emotional reaction out of me? The constant switching can occur multiple times in the same scene, where a line change can suddenly make things deadly serious, only for that tension to be immediately deflated by silly comedy. Essentially: everything is a joke until it isn’t, and that wild inconsistency means that the drama and the emotions of the story don’t connect like they should.
This should be the part where I invoke In Bruges, since that film’s handling of this sort of incredibly difficult tone could have entire classes taught on it and it is incredibly frustrating to see McDonagh be unable to replicate that mastery in his other film work. But I’m hesitant to do so, for the same reason that I am learning to try and avoid invoking Sicario when discussing the script work of Taylor Sheridan. Fact is: In Bruges was lightning in a bottle that McDonagh will not be able to replicate no matter how much we would love for him to, and it’s not like Three Billboards in its own right isn’t a fun, highly entertaining slice of cinema. Sometimes, filmmakers are just able to burst out of the gate with a classic, and then are unable to match that debut again, and whilst we shouldn’t exactly ignore that opening classic, we should learn to reorient our expectations in order to be able to appreciate their other work in its own right, cos it’s not like those other works aren’t also really good in their own ways. To hope for that lightning to strike twice is to only set oneself up for disappointment, and to ignore the pleasures playing in front of you.
Now, even with that said, Three Billboards’ massive tonal issues absolutely hobble the film from being able to attain greatness, leaving it as a film that I enjoyed but am unlikely to reflect too often on in the coming days, weeks, and months. But it is a damn enjoyable time at the movies, with a smart and funny script despite the tonal indecisiveness, excellent performances across the board, and a propulsive pace that keeps it feeling like much less than its near-two-hour runtime. I’m disappointed, but I’m learning to not be. After all, it’s better than Seven Psychopaths.
Three Billboards officially closed out the Festival, but my own time at the Festival was instead closed out at the specially-constructed Embankment Garden Cinema with Manhunt (B-), John Woo’s return to the Heroic Bloodshed genre that made him such a name in Film Geek circles in the late-80s and early-90s. Based on a Japanese novel and the 1976 film adaptation it’s already received, our story follows Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu). He works for a pharmaceutical company, helping them out with tough cases in a way that’s made them the juggernaut they are today, but he’s planning on leaving the company and moving to the United States. That is until he wakes up one morning to find a murdered woman in his bed next to him, with his fingerprints all over the weapon, despite knowing he didn’t do it. He therefore goes on the run in order to hunt down the truth and clear his name, pursued by the morally-righteous cop, Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama), who knows there’s more to this case than appears in the evidence, the rest of the corrupt Osaka police force, two highly-skilled female assassins (Ha Ji-won and Angeles Woo) that have crossed paths with Du before, and a mysterious woman (Qi Wei) with her own connections to Du and the people setting him up.
With Manhunt, John Woo is wanting everybody to party like it’s 1992, and that means all of the John Woo tropes you know and, most likely if you’re reading this, love are present and accounted for. A cop and a criminal on opposite sides of the law yet morally united in pursuit of justice? Utterly ridiculous melodrama that’s never met a tragically overwrought plot beat or dialogue exchange it didn’t love and subsequently use? Latent subtextual homoerotic tension? Incongruous scores that make no sense backing the scenes they do yet charmingly work anyway, albeit with 90s trip hop this time rather than mid-80s pop-jazz? Lots and lots of anonymous bodies being thrown through windows, perforated with numerous bullets, and diving through any glass panes within a 500M radius? Badass characters sliding across tables, down stairs, along the floor, soaring through the air, dual-wielding weapons and pulling off impossible headshots all the while? Dialogue so cheesy you could cut holes in it and sell it as a special brand of Swiss Cheese? Lots and lots and lots AND LOTS of slo-mo at every single available opportunity, like the film ran several minutes short and needed to be elongated somehow? Doves?
They’re all here, they’re all ridiculous, and it’s all knowingly so. Not in a manner that detracts from the experience, where a film ends up poking you in the ribs so frequently and for so long that it just becomes tiresome, but in a way that makes watching Manhunt a lot of frequently riotous fun. It’s sort of like a nostalgia act doing a brief reunion tour, where both you and they are getting a kick out of watching the old hits get trotted out again, especially compared to the po-faced over-seriousness of many of today’s action flicks. But whilst Woo wants us to pretend that the last 25 years never happened, his filmmaking skills appear to have declined somewhat in those intervening years, especially in the early going where Woo’s grasp of coherent scene geography in a narrative sense is surprisingly rickety, whilst a jet-ski chase definitely loses something from the blatantly-obvious greenscreen being utilised for it. Manhunt does eventually build up a good head of steam, though, especially during a mid-film house siege where Du and Yamura have to fight off waves of attackers whilst handcuffed together, and Woo and the film’s seven credited writers even smuggle in some (admittedly simplistic) commentary on the drug industry’s heartless Capitalistic self-interest.
This is nowhere near the level of Woo’s classic entries into this subgenre like Hard Boiled, The Killer, and A Better Tomorrow (name-checked during the ending because this is that kind of film) – hence the grade, which is in relation to his prior cracks at this – but Manhunt is a lot of very ridiculous fun. They don’t make them like this anymore, and even if one of those responsible for making them like that still can’t fully recreate it, it’s a damn fun approximation, if nothing else.
Tomorrow: our primary Festival coverage concludes with the customary Best Of list.
Callum Petch would have liked a present too.