' ' Cinema Romantico

Monday, December 11, 2017

Darkest Hour

Winston Churchill very much became the symbol of England standing fast in the face of the scurrilous Third Reich, and that symbol is paid homage by Joe Wright as his predominantly intimate opus “Darkest Hour” begins. We are dropped into a House of Commons quarrel where impassioned verbosity The Opposition forces lily-livered Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to resign. As this transpires, Wright’s camera settles on a chair that is empty aside from a bowler hat, overtly laying down the myth of Churchill before we even see him. Indeed, not long after typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) finds herself in Churchill’s residence, being given explicit instructions on the new Prime Minister’s bellicosity and eccentricity, the myth being furthered, and when she is finally ushered into his room, she finds it cloaked in darkness. Suddenly, Churchill appears by the light of his match as he ignites his cigar, that other infamous totem, sitting up in bed, all alone. Alone is the operative word. That is what the first half of “Darkest Hour” seeks to make rather clear – that in those early days of WWII, Winston Churchill, and, by extension, England, was all on its own.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is May 1940 and the English army has been driven to Dunkirk, hoping for evacuation, praying for a miracle. The war cabinet, and in particular Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), fearing the totality of their armed forces will be lost, wants to initiate peace talks with the Third Reich, but Churchill wants to find means to generate the miracle, though one does not seem readily apparent. In the course of this familiar drama, however, Wright refrains from showing us the beaches of Dunkirk, and we only get only one glimpse of the famous civilian fleet enlisted for the rescue while the Nazi menace is defined by a single shot of Hitler overlooking a battle map. No, “Darkest Hour” wants to keep us firmly in the headspace of Churchill as, teetering on the brink of calamity, he is forced to navigate the fine line between honesty and fibbing by means of a brave face, limiting the action almost exclusively to his residence and war cabinet rooms.

At times, Wright seems to cast Churchill as deity, such as when the commander at Calais, where English troops are drawing fire away from Dunkirk, receives from the Prime Minister a letter of encouragement. And as he finishes reading, he looks up toward the heavens, partly so Wright’s camera can pull up, up and up, into the sky to find the Lutwaffe soaring overhead, but partly to evoke the idea of Churchill as celestial caretaker. This mythos is further over-emphasized in how Dillane plays Lord Halifax, Churchill’s foremost English antagonist, with one insistent note, sitting rock still, his head sloped disapprovingly downward, his eyes tilted disapprovingly upward. Against this, Churchill can only be right, right? He is, of course, and too often rather than finding means to offset the benefit of hindsight, “Darkest Hour” just sort of plays right into it.

It is best warded off, in fact, by Oldman himself, who, aided by all manner of prosthetics to help him look like Churchill, and employing all kinds of finely considered mannerisms to help him seem like Churchill, gleefully acts as incorrigible as he can, hollering so hard you can practically see the spittle. And periodically Wright forgoes myth-making to harmonize with Oldman’s turn, never more so than a meal the Prime Minister takes with King George VI (Ben Mendehlson), where Churchill feeds food right off the table to the dog, and which Oldman plays with the same sort of carnivorous, lean-forward-and-shovel-steak-in-your-mouth air he emitted in a similar scene as Shelly Runyon in “The Contender.”

This lack of social grace plays into the character’s isolation, and that isolation is the biggest hurdle the screenplay sets for him to overcome. England can be an island in its defense, quite effectively so, but a man cannot, and rather than refashion transparency to lead his country into war, he must appeal directly to the people, and he must listen to their voices. And that is where “Darkest Hour” really goes wrong in a single lengthy sequence meant to elicit Churchill’s transformation that I imagine will be dissected for years to come. This occurs as the payoff to a not-so-cleverly planted setup involving Churchill never having ridden the subway where, on his way to cabinet meeting, he skips out on his driver to take the subway instead, suddenly finding himself surrounded by The People.

The sequence, while not true itself, is apparently based somewhat on reality, though the plausibility wasn’t what concerned me, nor was the inherent hokeyness. No, what concerned me was how, because of the movie’s intense focus on Churchill, this becomes his one scene, outside a few platitudinous exchanges with his wife and typist, when he looks through the looking glass the other way. Writer Anthony McCarten, however, cannot fashion real people from these subway riders in this limited amount of time, making them all mere types, and what’s more, because they realize they are in the company of Churchill, they find themselves spurred on by him as opposed to them spurring him on.

If it’s true that Winston Churchill became a heroic symbol of opposition, a spirited leader that the people felt they could count on, well, too often in the language of the “Darkest Hour”, he becomes something more akin to a cult of personality.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Downtown Athletic Club — The Movie

I was reading Chris Low’s ESPN oral history of the 1997 Heisman Trophy race that still engenders arguments over whether Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson really did deserve to win over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning. However, one line, spoken by Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, also a finalist that year, struck me more than anything else. He said: “We showed back up at the Downtown Athletic Club at 2 or 3 in the morning, and all the former winners were around the piano singing songs.” It stopped me in my tracks. I did not even finish the article. How could I? How could I possibly do anything but envision a movie?

A movie set at the Downtown Athletic Club, which no longer exists, but which used to sponsor and host the award ceremony, in those glorious, throwback days before ESPN commandeered the event and transformed it into something like an overblown Broadway event with false drama. A movie in which three fictional finalists — the cocky, photogenic quarterback from USC, the talented yet touchy running back from Florida, the wide-eyed country bumpkin two-way player from Wyoming who isn’t even sure how he wound up here — spend the 24 hours leading up to the Heisman ceremony, and a few hours after it, in the Downtown Athletic Club in the company of former Heisman winners. It would be something like those ESPN Heisman House commercials but blown out to a feature film and ending at 2 or 3 AM with everyone gathered around a piano, sloshed, singing “C’Mon ’N Ride It (The Train)” by Quad City D.J.’s

The emergent question, of course, becomes what type of Heisman winners would surround our finalists? Luckily for you, we have some ideas.

Downtown Athletic Club — The Movie, Heisman Winner Archetypes

Steve Spurrier-type. The ol’ Ball Coach, particularly as he has aged and seemingly lost interest in the sport, exudes a smart-alecky nonchalance that would mark him as the Statler & Waldorf of the proceedings, drinking Coors, cracking wise, getting bleeped on ESPN.

Tim Tebow-type & Ricky Williams-type. Tebow is a staunch Christian and Williams is a cannabis advocate! And hey, what wacky comedy doesn’t peddle in obvious, terrible stereotypes?! These two could be The Downtown Athletic Club Odd Couple! Hijinks!!! My God, the hijinks!!!

Reggie Bush-type. Reggie Bush forfeited his 2005 Heisman Trophy when it seemed clear the Trophy was going to be taken from him on account of his accepting gifts (God forbid!) in violation of NCAA rules. His post-college career has not quite existed at the same incendiary level, and so what if the Reggie Bush-type is there to make amends, only to be told by the doorman he is not on the list, leaving him to scheme a way inside. (The Downtown Athletic Club must have had air ducts.)

Eric Crouch-type. Crouch, formerly of my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers, parodied himself a couple years ago as an egotistical Heisman winner resting fiercely on his laurels, and so why not take that parody and twist it, turning the Crouch-type into the scraggly ex-Heisman winner who, having fallen on hard times, is now living at the Downtown Athletic Club, causing comic mayhem at every turn?

Doug Flutie-type. Our apologies to the former Boston College quarterback, an irrefutably deserving Heisman winner and a seemingly genuinely good guy, but something about his visage suggests him for the part of Downtown Athletic Club’s Dean Wormer, authoritatively defending the Heisman Trophy’s honor, scheming to keep that rule-flouting Reggie Bush out, dealing with that scruffy Eric Crouch’s antics.

Gino Toretta & Andre Ware. Neither of these quarterbacks from Miami and Houston, respectively, really should have won their Heisman Trophies and I dare say they both know it. And that is why they would spend the entire day in “Do-Deca-Pentathlon”-ish escalating feats of strength.

Johnny Manziel-type, and Jason White-type & Carson Palmer-type. Johnny Manziel is Biff Tannen, Jason White is 3-D and Carson Palmer is Match, the Heisman Trophy winner gang that goes around bullying the newbie nominees.

Vinny Testaverde-type. Like Jerry O’Connell in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, the Vinny Testaverde-type will appear like an apparition near the end, unshaven and in a tux with the necktie and collar loose, warning that year’s victor that being a Heisman Trophy winner and #1 NFL draft pick are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Winter Kills (1979)

1979’s “Winter Kills”, chronicling the half-brother, Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), of the ex-President of the United States slain by a sniper 19 years earlier, did not make much of an impression at the box office, not least because its distributor pulled the film from theaters not long after its release. Possibly, as Turner Classic Movies notes, this was because Avco-Embassy’s parent company had defense contracts they feared this cinematic conspiracy theory might muck up. That might be true, who knows, and certainly the material contained within “Winter Kills” might make that feel more plausible than you would have initially thought, though the film’s tone, even for the 1970s, might well have put people off. The tone wavers between blackly comic and frightfully serious, where a few characters can be cracking ornery jokes one second and then shot dead the next.

This tone, however, is not confused; this tone is deliberate. Written and directed by William Richert, who based it off satirist Richard Condon’s novel, “Winter Kills” shows the dark heart of politics to be as blackly comic as it is frightfully serious, where everything is something like a game with genuine stakes, and typically tied back to familial dynasties from which no son, no matter how much he might want, can extract himself, bound by political dynasty, seen acutely, comically, crazily in a scene where Nick leaps from bed and, still clad in his pajamas, rides a horse across a western landscape all to shout angry bromides at his dad, Pa Kegan (John Huston), a scene which plays like a funhouse mirror of some John Wayne western. Man, it made me laugh hard.

The finer points of the conspiracy are mostly just cut and pasted from, as you might surmise, the innumerable conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. A dying man turns up to tell a bewildered Nick that he was the mysterious second gunman, sub-contracted by some evildoing, unknown agency to off the then POTUS, an agency that Nick will try to get to the bottom of. This involves Cuba, the mafia, and, oh yes, a shady nightclub owner, all of which you can find ready accessible in JFK too, and much of which is seen in delightfully askew flashbacks, which feel like put-ons of archetypal flashback scenes.

The deeper the scheme goes, however, the less sense it seems to make, to us and to Nick, brought home in a late scene with John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), some sort of crazed Transponster and ally of Pa Kegan, who essentially just stands there and tells Nick what happened. The irony, however, is that while Cerruti might be hidden away in some mysterious silo, like he’s on the set of Inspector Gadget, with a colossal video of earth looming, with “multiple expanding universes of information” at his disposal, the truth is so simple, pointing right back toward the Kegan name – that is, Pa. And if Pa ends up pointing the finger right back at Cerruti, well, isn’t that politics, a Rubik’s Cube?

Jeff Bridges becomes the perfect surrogate for trying to solve the impossible, so convincing in his damn-the-torpedoes cluelessness. “Big Lebowski” fans, in fact, might recognize his predominant facial expression here as akin to the one he wields upon his infamous introduction to Maude Lebowski, a countenance of screamingly hysterical, genuine, unadorned bafflement, and it becomes something like the emblem of “Winter Kills.” Indeed, in perhaps the movie’s most comical moment, Nick finds himself driving onto the expansive property of the enigmatic, hard-bitten Dawson (Sterling Hayden), hoping for a meeting, only to suddenly find a damn Sherman tank coming right at him, forcing Nick to desperately maneuver in reverse before being met by a bevy of tanks coming from the other direction. He stops and climbs out of the car. Dawson emerges from the hatch, un-amused. And where most actors might understandably play up the fear, and while other actors might opt for sweaty panic, Bridges just stands there, mouth agape, confused. What’s happening? Hell if he knows.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

We Are Grateful For... Tom Hanks

Do we under-appreciate Tom Hanks? This is the question before us today, a question that my beautiful girlfriend has answered with a definitive “Yes” several times over the course of our relationship, including just recently, which got me to thinking about it too, but also thinking about something else that I will address in a minute because first, Hanks. Culturally, I think, Tom Hanks remains quite appreciated, often cited, as he was in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, as America’s Dad. Of course, the phrase America’s Dad sort of intrinsically suggests someone apart from his acting contemporaries. Hanks simply emits a different vibe from, say, the twitchy edginess of Joaquin Phoenix, or the hipster social media cred of Michael Shannon, or the high watt regality of Michael Fassbender. Even when you see Tom Hanks in a suit, and you usually do, his aura suggests he is wearing a sweater, cozy, familar.

That sensation is furthered by his recent films, helmed by the grandfatherly guard of Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, in which Hanks played real-life middle-aged, All-American heroes James Donovan and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, never mind another appearance as Robert Langdon in “Inferno”, the hero of Dan Brown’s airport rack novel series, the very epitome of the entertainment proletariat. I have not seen “Inferno” but Hanks was excellent in both “Bridge of Spies” and “Sully”, never metaphorically shouting all his dialogue through a Stars & Stripes bullhorn in the former and quietly illustrating the controlled nature of his character that allowed him to do what he did in the latter, and he was even better in the otherwise mostly mushy “Saving Mr. Banks” as none other than Walt Disney, knifing under the skin of that infamous entertainer ever so delicately to unearth deeper shades.

But then, these performances do not completely transcend his outward America’s Dad Hanks-iness, just as his forthcoming turn as Ben Bradlee in “The Post” does not really either. With, say, Daniel Day-Lewis, you can really get traction on his transformations whereas Hanks has not really taken that sort of acting deep dive since he grew a beard and got thin for “Cast Away.” (Hanks does, however, remain the master of the regional American accent.) And while Day-Lewis’s infamous long breaks between films, and his engimatic disappearances from the public eye during those breaks, seems to engender a cavalcade of (oft-deserved) superlatives every time he re-emerges, Hanks always remains very much here, and if his new performances are always acknowledged, they are never quite baroquely extolled, just sort of rendering Hanks the Actor in the public imagination as is.

Time, of course, cuts different ways. Time has, in many ways, taken the luster off Robert DeNiro, brought about by less than savory performances in less than savory films, which too often temper the good performances he can still give, fading away rather burning out. Yet, twenty years ago DeNiro did not exist in pop culture as a fallen titan. If anything, DeNiro’s Italian surname had taken on almost mythical connotations. To burgeoning semi-cinemaphiles such as myself, to say his name was to immediately conjure mental images of Jimmy Conway standing at the bar staring down Morrie or Johnny Boy blowing up the mailbox. He loomed so large culturally that his new performances, while not necessarily measured against those of his past, still tended to invite a kind of broader complacency.

Indeed, the historical Hollywood texts will show that 1997 supporting male performances like Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” and Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights” and Kevin Spacey in “L.A. Confidential” were the primary focus of awards. Little mention, alas, was made of Robert DeNiro’s two turn winter in “Jackie Brown” and “Wag the Dog.” Why his “Jackie Brown” co-star Robert Forster earned an Academy Award nomination as did his “Wag the Dog” co-star Dustin Hoffman, but not DeNiro himself. Why not?

In “Jackie Brown” as lifelong criminal Louis Gara, DeNiro was deliberately hunched in his posture and slow-witted in both his manner and speech, sort of mumbling in half-sentences and always seeming to be half-second behind whatever anyone was trying to communicate to him, behavior deftly evoking a man who had spent much of his life behind bars and without much beyond the most primitive contact. In “Wag the Dog” as vaguely defined yet conspicuously powerful political operative Conrad Brean, on the other hand, DeNiro spoke with great alacrity and clarity while simultaneously utilizing all manner of little bodily tics to indicate someone sizing you and everything else to ensure he stays one step ahead.

Released within a week or so of one another, these two performances could not have been any different (in fact, a year later, in “Ronin”, DeNiro would more or less meld these two performances into one, playing a less talkative guy who was highly observant) and yet, while there was less fly-by-night awards punditry then exists now, I remember thinking it odd that neither of DeNiro’s turns were being hailed like so many others. Time had not passed him by, yet it had caused him, a la Hanks, to settle as he was, a great actor giving great performances, which was understood if not quite recognized, simply accepted as the status quo. I am not suggesting that Hanks is about to go the way of DeNiro, not at all, simply seeking to remind ourselves that even as Hanks assumes this role of cultural capstone he very much remains a working actor.

It’s nice that he’s America’s Dad; I’m happier he’s Ben Bradlee.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Shout-Out to the Extra: Love Actually Version

Shout-Out to the Extra is a sporadic series in which Cinema Romantico shouts out the extras, the background actors, the bit part players, the almost out of your sight line performers who expertly round out our movies with epic blink & you’ll miss it care.

The prologue for Richard Curtis’s “Love Actually” (2003), a motion picture consisting of a mixture of strawberries, broken meringue, and whipped heavy cream, finds Hugh Grant as Britain’s Prime Minister explaining in voiceover a preference for kicking up his heels at Heathrow Airport’s arrivals gate to simply watch the affection exchanged between “fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends.” After that opening, however, there are a lot of observations about love, or the flickering myth version of love, if you prefer, but not a lot of characters standing back, like the Prime Minister essentially is in this opening, to observe love themselves. The closest we get to the Heathrow Airport arrivals gate – uh, aside from the Heathrow Airport arrivals gate right there at the end – is the climactic scene toward the end when neurotic Jamie (Colin Firth) dispels with his neurosis to make a grand gesture by catching a flight to track down his beloved Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) at the restaurant where she works to make marriage proposal in Portuguese. As he does, everyone in the restaurant comes to a standstill, including the waiter pictured below.

Every time I saw this frame, whether at the many annual tryptophan-hazed Thanksgiving viewings I had with friends over the years or anywhere in-between, I only really ever noticed the waiter. How could I not? His smile does not overwhelm, which is just right, a little more private, as if even in this moment he is adhering to the unwritten code that the customer comes first. Yet I had never noticed a couple others in the frame. The server to his right, for instance, who seems a little less pensive and a little more put out, as if she was just about to finish her shift and now this will further delay her fleeing. She, however, is nothing compared to the dude to the bottom of her, obscured by the subtitled “they”, who seems, like, legitimately angry, like who are these intruders, these glory hounds compromising his culinary experience. Indeed, his irritation and her more mild form of it contrast impeccably with the whimsy of the central waiter and make this frame so much fuller than I ever realized.

In recent years, of course, so many civil hands of movie lovers have been left unclean with civil blood in disputes over whether “Love Actually” is merely a rom com sugar plum fairy that makes even me, traditionally snide critic, want to say things like “You know, people just go to the movies to be entertained” [scrubs own mouth with soap) or something far more insidious, a sexist trash heap as Amy O’Dell deemed it so harshly for Cosmopolitan.

I am receptive to the arguments of O’Dell and the ten thousand others like hers, honestly, though I genuinely believe that “Love Actually” was crafted with far too much guilelessness to be considered so malicious. And I suppose that is why I identity with this frame. I understand the server who just wants this whole bad-Portuguese proposal to end, and I am empathetic with the incensed gentleman who doesn’t believe all this hooey for a second. Still, in this photo I am the waiter, and will be forever, standing back, observing love, believing in it, God help me, ’til the end.

Pour one out for the extra...

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Beats Per Minute

As a self-professed “militant” of the advocacy group Act Up founded in the late 80s to combat the AIDS crisis by means both big and small, director Robin Campillo chronicles the organization’s early days in the sprawling yet intimate “Beat Per Minute.” And if the film is often harrowing, particularly as it documents what the disease can do, it’s just as often full of life, repeatedly following scenes of dissent with moments on the dance floor, from which the movie gleans its title, as if its characters are replenishing emotional oxygen for the next battle. What’s more, “BPM” occasionally weaves celebration into moments of protest, like the group fashioning itself as a kind of HIV conscious cheer team in the midst of a gay pride parade, chanting and handing out condoms as Campillo frames the sky around them with colorful confetti, where the joy is real even if the cause is trying to pry open people’s eyes to the horror. And so even if one of the film’s most memorable monologues involves the charismatic and HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) mocking the sentiment that from pain comes beauty, that’s sort of what Campillo does in this scene, and throughout, anyway, but without ever trafficking in crude schmaltz.

Much of “Beats Per Minute” takes place amidst Act Up meetings, set in crowded lecture halls. There are many discussions, and though these scenes often run long on time, their twitchy, guerilla-like camerawork, making us feel like someone in the room, our heads on a swivel to keep up, lend them abundant urgency. Nor are these scenes mere delivery devices for exposition, preferring to let its characters have honest discussions about the best means to advance their cause, whether that’s by any means necessary or taking a more professionalized approach in dealing with big pharma to get the help they need. That these debates, prickly but passionate, are honestly undertaken but never really resolved underscore the sensation of democracy in action, brought home in a monologue citing the 1848 French revolution laid over one lecture hall meeting, a moment in which two different pasts seem to mingle with our present, reminding us of the inherent messiness of political and social fairness.

Occasionally others are allowed into the room, like a pair of defensive pharmaceutical representatives, and sometimes we see Act Up engaging with others in the field, like polite raids on high schools to distribute condoms, but mostly these activists remain apart from the larger world. That’s evocative of AIDS being so often misunderstood and overlooked at the time, yet just as suggestive of the disease itself, where those who had it were so often forced to suffer in the dark and pushes into the light even if they were not ready. Indeed, one searing monologue finds a character explaining how he came out to his parents by having to explain he was HIV positive. And when a member of the group suggests Act Up adopt the slogan “AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us”, everyone else recoils because they want help, dammit, and they want it (need it) now, not just token empathy.

The political is made personal through Sean and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV negative newbie to the group, who are drawn together. The emotional center of their relationship is a lengthy sex scene quivering between the present, their lovemaking intertwined with whispers about their past romantic partners, some of whom seem to materialize, like ghosts, in the here and now, evocative not only of the way in which the past lingers, even in moments of extreme intimacy, but how in the midst of the AIDS crisis old decisions could carry immense weight.

And as Act Up’s actions get bigger and bolder, the more “Beats Per Minute” closes in on Sean, a wonderful contrast, never more palpable than cutting from the Seine dyed red to illustrate the blood of so many victims to a slowly dying Sean. Still, even as Campillo reduces his perspective to Sean’s small hospital room, the group remains paramount, and if all these Act Up provocateurs don’t exactly get in-depth backstories, the air of each actor nevertheless invests his or her character with a distinct persona anyway, all of which are varied from one another despite what they have in common. But what they have in common is what is most vital, and when Nathan asks Sean what all these other people do, Sean can only smile. What do they do? They give themselves to the cause, because the cause is their lives, which the closing sequence brings home acutely, becoming something like a jazz funeral, and the way that Campillo concocts it, it looks as much like a dance as an act of protest.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is tending to some flowers she has planted the near the base of the three billboards giving “Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri” its title, faux-advertisements she has implemented to call out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find the rapist and murderer of her daughter. As she does, a deer wanders up and Mildred entertains out loud the idea of this animal being a sign from God, even though to this point, and most points after, she seems more resigned to a barren, godless existence where people do rotten things to one another just because they can. And if McDormand’s fiercely committed stoicism sells the scene’s parting line meant to communicate a wavering in her rejection of faith, well, sorry, but I still didn’t buy that little deflection one bit.

In his two previous feature films, “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”, writer/director Martin McDonagh has wrung empathy from unpleasant characters, but in “Three Billboards” he pushes his unpleasant characters to (past) the edge, actively daring us to turn the other cheek and like them. If Mildred initially seems to have the makings of a fiery hero, standing up to corrupt law enforcement, like racist, mama’s boy cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, laying it on thick), the script hacks away at that heroism. Sure, Mildred demonstrates a little love to a beetle, but she behaves so corrosively toward her daughter in a flashback that it, and myriad moments like it, indelicately suck all the air from the room, a recurring sensation that reveals McDonagh’s intentions as less about emphasizing character dimension than empty provocation.

That provocation is also evoked in the flowery, florid dialogue. Granted, some of these speeches, like Mildred’s blistering takedown of the Catholic priest who comes calling, are astonishing, incisive verbal assaults. And yet, if you place these various speeches side-by-side, and strain ever so slightly to hear past the talented actors’ differing voices, a distinct sameness nevertheless emerges in all these words, as if the screenwriter is communicating to us from on high rather than the characters actually speaking for themselves, an unfortunate sensation sapping the proceedings of so much spontaneity. That loss is crucial because in a movie where characters are intended to be motivated by emotional impulses rather than thought-through reason, they come across oddly programmed, existing only by design, a sensation permeating the whole movie.

Indeed, if McDonagh skillfully wove Bruges itself into “In Bruges”, making it a true supporting character, he hardly manages the same with Ebbing, which feels more like some sort of All-American stand-in, evinced by the Old Glory hanging in nearly every shot, from porches to back walls in bars, even popping up in window reflections, always there, like those news reports in “Killing Them Softly.” Despite the oft-solid set design the film nevertheless feels more like the chalk outlines of “Dogville” or the counterfeit cabin in “The Hateful Eight”, as if we have been airdropped into some filmmaker’s make-believe set.

You see this in how you don’t see any of the supposed town-wide loyalty to Sheriff Willoughby. We are merely told of the undying loyalty to Willoughby, just as we are merely told about the rampant racism within the police force while the movie itself deploys all its black characters as nothing more than pawns of the plot, and while McDonagh seems intent on exploring how women are to get along in a domineering male-dominated world he writes his few female supporting parts as useless airheads, even finding twisted joy in having one of them punched in the face. The latter moment is particularly grotesque, just popping up in the midst of Dixon’s most horrifying act, for which there is oddly no real-world comeuppance, which isn’t so much me playing Plausibility Police as noting how “Three Billboards” itself exists in its own fantasyland, apart from the consequences it pretends to impart, shock value superseding significance again and again.

This becomes more glaring the further the movie goes and its various plot points lock into place. As everything seems to be barreling toward a certain act of vengeance wrapped up in an untraditional demonstration of forgiveness, McDonagh’s script suddenly tacks in another direction, wiping that clean conclusion off the board, taking a turn for nihilism rather than certainty. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” wants to believe that nothing really make sense, when the movie’s homogenous dialogue, lack of place and overly calibrated plot winds up resembling exactly the opposite.