ARCHIVE Reviews, Part Two: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

With the Academy Awards looming over the horizon yet again, it is time to turn attention to a previous winner and escape the constant January negativity and speculation. Two years ago, one film in particular was at the centre of the omnipresent Oscar debates: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The dark comedy is the third feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, chronicling a grieving mother’s warpath for justice to be served for her daughter’s unsolved murder. Continuing the trend commenced by his debut feature, In Bruges (2008), McDonagh’s latest film struck a tense balance between obscene humour and the bleak subject matter it arises from. 

After lingering in vain hope and misery for seven months after the murder of her daughter, the pragmatic Mildred (Frances McDormand) sparks outrage in her rural community by putting a provocative message on three billboards to the town’s chief-of-police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). With the help of bigot cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), what ensues is foul-mouthed and explosive as “anger begets anger”. Nonetheless at its core, the film retains a profound sentimentality, echoing a 20th century dramatic tragicomedy. 

As striking as the script is, the glaringly obvious merit of this film is the acting. Thank Mary, Mother and Joseph that Frances McDormand was not robbed of the Best Actress award in 2017. The strength of McDormand’s performance may even eclipse her award winning performance in 1996’s Fargo as she portrays the no-nonsense yet internally conflicted protagonist – publically defiant and yet wrestling with her own personal demons. Said demons linger over the shoulder of every character, even if we do not see them at first. None more so than the other two mains, expertly portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell who were both nominated by the Academy for their performances, with Rockwell just pipping his co-worker. I imagine Harrelson being too high at the time to feel sadness at the result. Whilst Harrelson manages to portray an empathetic man in the midst of a tragedy, Rockwell’s Dixon is racist and violent, damned but with hope of redemption. 

As Mildred declares Dixon and co. are “too busy going around torturing black folks”, elements of controversy arise. In a discussion of the film, Clint Gage of Cinefix (a YouTube channel I would highly recommend to all film-lovers) expresses his disappointment at the “hollowness” of the socially relevant themes the film teed up, such as discussions surrounding police brutality and racism. For once, I must disagree, Clint. In a film that constantly balances motifs on a knife’s edge, Dixon is a character that implies the necessity of change. No explicit redemption is established, yet changes take place in all of the characters. Seeds are planted and the open ending allows our imaginations to see them sprout. McDonagh has a skill for emphasising the flawed humanity of each of his characters. We can always empathise with them. Yet we are forced to stare down the barrel of their depravities. One example being when Dixon, enraged and saddened, throws a man out of a window in a beautifully brutal over the shoulder one-shot sequence. We see the cruelty in his own perspective, contrasting the empowering catharsis felt when Mildred acts upon her rage. 

The script is unpredictable, the characters’ complex. There is little to fault in McDonagh’s renegade tour de force. The cinematography was simplistic but effective. Not as eye catching as Roger Deakins’ transportive palettes in BladeRunner 2049, however, shots such as the opening decrepit billboards help to compound the atmosphere whilst the progressive use of red lighting throughout is evocative of each lead’s struggle. All of which has initiated constant debate about which McDonagh film I now consider my favourite: In Bruges or Three Billboards? (Sorry, Seven Psychopaths fans).  

Update from when I first wrote this review… In Bruges is still king.

Regardless of my opinion, the film mischievously avoids reassurance and finality. Consistently provocative, McDonagh’s script allows the viewer to interpret the events, to declare judgment on the characters. Yet there is a certain allure in the ambivalence as we wield the gavel, incapable of striking the hardwood as the credits roll. 

ARCHIVE Reviews, Part One: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

In this miniseries of articles, I shall be looking back upon the last decade of film and reviewing some of my favourites of the past ten years. Up first is Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, the film which proved that he is the man to make 2020’s Dune a modern sci-fi classic.

It is a brave voyage that Denis Villeneuve embarked on in 2017. The original Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of the curiously named novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, is one of those rare films that began with a disregarded wisp of smoke only to erupt and send seismic waves of influence within not only the science-fiction genre, but across the entire film industry. The awe-inspiring sets and visuals exemplified the transportive capacity of cinema whilst the permeating mood of ambiguity continues to inspire debate among contemporary cult followers about its fundamental themes, characters and images. Are the replicants more human than the humans? Is Deckard a replicant? What is the meaning of the origami unicorn?

The original Blade Runner‘s (1982) set and production design was a triumph, creating a dark reflection of our own future.

It is difficult to know whether or not lovers of the original would desire the answers to these questions. Would it ruin the soul of the original? Like I said, Villeneuve and co. had set themselves a task of cosmic proportions. Yet given Villeneuve’s recent directorial features, Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and more recently 2016’s Arrival, an alien contact story that strives for the provocation of intellectual questions rather than blockbuster action, it is clear that Blade Runner 2049 (2017) has at the helm one of Hollywood’s greatest visionaries. 

The film takes place thirty years after the events of the original, as we follow a new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling) within a dystopian Los Angeles in which all the greenery of our once glorious ecosystems has faded into grey. His profession, to ‘retire’ rogue replicants, is still performed with the swift brutality as in the old days of Deckard’s career (Harrison Ford). After retiring a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he unearths the remains of a female who died during a caesarean section underneath a prophetic white tree against the bleak landscape. The woman was also a replicant, only… replicants cannot reproduce, can they? 

The discovery forces K to follow the mystery down the rabbit hole as his human commander (Robin Wright) believes such a revelation could result in a war commencing between humans and replicants. His pursuit leads K through this bleak new world, in search of Ford’s Deckard but also in search of the truth of his own identity. What holds the film together is the thematic continuity between itself and the original. The profound questions posed by the original are explored further, as existential crises surrounding identity, purpose and what it means to be human pervades the ambivalent aura. 

Within the awe-inspiring world envisaged by Roger Deakins’ sublime cinematography (as ever – at least the Academy finally came to their senses this year), man has lost a spiritual connection with nature. The post-modernist dystopia is at the surface a dirty, un-romanticised city peppered with candy-pink holograms surrounded with wastelands basking in the glorious orange hue of radiation. It is, without a doubt, the best looking film of 2017. Yet the aesthetic serves a greater purpose than one may expect. Wallace (Jared Leto) reigns over the corporation who has created a new model of replicant, more obedient than Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) model in Ridley Scott’s original. During the film we visit his overwhelmingly expensive apartment: grand open spaces, reflective water shimmering off the smooth walls. Yet it is completely featureless. There are no grand pieces of art, no treasured heirlooms. Wallace himself has immersed himself within this artificial world. His opaque milk-coloured eyes require technology to enable him the gift of sight. The curtains are drawn upon the windows of the soul. 

The score, an unnerving combination of slow eerie synthesizers rising into hauntingly high revelations of double-bass and choral instruments, reveals more about how humans appear to have lost touch with what makes us human. Woven throughout the film are incomplete symphonies. A holographic performance of Elvis fragments “Sus-s-pic… iousss minds” whilst the harmonious swells of “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev are distorted, as the violins descend into synthetic white-noise. The humans we encounter can no longer appreciate humanity’s greatest cultural achievements. 

When asked by production designer, Dennis Gassner, to describe the film in a single word, Denis Villeneuve replied: ‘brutality’. Wallace embodies said brutality. He slices a new-born replicant like a sacrificial lamb in front of his ruthless lieutenant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Throughout both films, the killing of replicants faces no moral qualms because humans insist that they don’t have a soul. But is a soul something people are born with? Or is it constructed? In the original, Roy Batty, a replicant primed to kill, saves Deckard in rebellion of his programming yet we see a human, Wallace, kill without remorse or question. And so, the question swings in the air like a pendulum: have humans lost their humanity?

Such internal dilemmas torment K, and Ryan Gosling captures the quiet and afflicted protagonist expertly. Gosling, who has a knack of picking scripts in which he plays complex and conflicted characters, such as Drive (2011) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), appears to me Hollywood’s contemporary Harrison Ford – possessing an exterior of masculine magnetism that envelops a tender soul within. Ford, by the way, was excellent. The Deckard we know returns but he is evidently tortured by his past.

The entire cast deserves praise for their performances. Jared Leto is chilling and unsettling as Wallace. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is utterly relentless yet we suspect her inquisitive cogs are turning beneath the surface. Ana de Armas plays K’s devoted but holographic girlfriend, Joi, another AI application that relinquishes humanity’s innate compassion. Nonetheless, the dynamic between de Armas and Gosling manages to inject pathos and tragedy into an otherwise ersatz relationship. 

Despite such fine feats of acting, the greatest performance is Villeneuve’s. Brave enough to take a slow pace, like the original, brave enough to explore yet preserve the encompassing enigmas, like the original, and brave enough to prime such a beautiful yet gritty spectacle with not only violence but with an atmosphere which intrigues and unnerves the viewer, like the original. Such loyalty does not detract from innovation. Blade Runner 2049 is its own self-contained beast that seeks to tell a story. For me, it is such a refreshing approach amidst Hollywood’s tendency to unnecessarily plant seeds for sequels and franchises. Villeneuve, for one, has retained his humanity.