Three New Movies: One Story of Revenge, Two Others of Redemption

At the Movies

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Sam Rockwell (left) and Frances McDormand face off in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
“Three Billboards” feels like witnessing a new Coen Brothers film, most particularly “Fargo.” It has the small-town Midwest vibe, the same sudden shifts from goofy to ghastly in a nanosecond, a favorite Coen actress in a formidable performance– even the same sound track composer, Carter Burwell (rated “R,” this film runs 115mins. and is now in theaters), Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) lost her daughter months ago in a horrendous rape-murder, and she decides to pressure the police to find the murderer by commissioning three chiding billboards on an abandoned road. The pressure is on Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the crime, but he—a decent family man—has his own problems with a terminal cancer diagnosis. His staff seems mainly inept, especially deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) a casual racist and lay about, and the community finds Mildred’s obsession unseemly. Nevertheless, she persists.

A shocking death changes the dynamics of Mildred’s cause, and events escalate. A remark Dixon overhears promises a solution to the murder, and antagonists Mildred and Dixon join forces. The ending is not neat but is consistent with this cunning, switchback story.

I referenced McDormand as one link to “Fargo,” but her performance is extremely different. Hardly the lovable Marge Gunderson, McDormand here is a tight-lipped yet profane vengeance seeker, ready to put down anyone who questions her motives. Her search for answers is obsessive, clouding out everything else. Her stance is adamantine, and puzzling, too, since the film only offers one brief scene (the movie’s lone flashback) with her and her daughter, and it is a very sour one. Still, she is riveting.

Rockwell, as the maladroit Dixon, appears as a crass stereotype, but his character gradually gains dimension and sympathy. Harrelson, normally coarse and wooden, also reveals a richer nature as the film proceeds. There are other featured players who add welcome elements of calm and reason (Mildred’s son played by Lucas Hedges), goofball romanticism (Peter Dinklage), reassuring competence (Clarke Peters), and charming ditz (Malaya Rivera Drew), among others.  Whatever the weirdness of plot, these players ground the film.

Martin McDonagh became a world-famous playwright in his 20’s, with provocative Irish dramas packaged as the Leenane and Aran Island trilogies.  He then gravitated to film, and “Ebbing” is his third feature. From the offhand humor of “In Bruges,” he moved to darker territory in “Seven Psychopaths” and exhibits an even more complicated palette in his latest film. What he excels at is keeping up the momentum of the story, keeping it finely balanced between silly and shocking, and keeping you guessing as to what’s next.  It may turn you off occasionally, but “Ebbing” remains decidedly watchable.

Left to right: Bryan Cranston as “Sal,” Steve Carrell as “Doc,” and Laurence Fishburne as “Mueller” in “Last Flag Flying.” Photo: Wilson Webb; courtesy Lionsgate Films

Last Flag Flying
“The Last Detail” was a great film of the 1970’s that told of two Navy signalmen shepherding a young sailor to the brig. It was based on the first novel of Darryl Ponicsan. Many years later, in 2005, Ponicsan wrote a kind of sequel, “Last Flag Flying,” again featuring three servicemen on a quest. Now, director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) has teamed with Ponicsan (co-writing the script) for the film of “Last Flag Flying,” wherein three Vietnam War vets reunite to honor the son of one of them who has died in the Iraq War (now in theaters, the film is rated “R” and runs 124 mins.).

Ex-seaman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrell), the grieving father, brings the threesome together by looking up old Marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), running a cheesy bar in North Carolina. They, in turn, find Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne), once a tough Marine who has become a minister with a congregation in Virginia.

Acceding to Doc’s wishes, the three set out to receive the young Shepherd’s remains at Arlington Cemetery.  Oops!  The body is not consigned to Arlington, but Dover AFB, where Doc’s contesting of an officious colonel’s orders leads them to rent their own vehicle and drive the casket to Doc’s home in Portsmouth, NH. Joining them, at the Corps’ insistence, is Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a friend of the deceased, to keep protocols intact.

Thus, a road trip ensues as the old timers reminiscence, bond, and recall a terrible incident from their war. Doc is a self-effacing man, with a reticence that contrasts utterly with the wise-ass Sal, a drunk on the lookout for a chick or a hustle.  Mueller has found the Lord and given up sinful ways—almost.   Offering a sweet-and-sour tour of these differing personalities, the film traces their traits in both humorous and tart set pieces, some more effective than others.

There are comic elements that the actors pull off well, such as one when these 50-somethings get picked up as elderly “terrorists” with a U-Haul when Mueller’s name gets mangled into “Mullah.” There are touching scenes, too, as when the three look up the mother (Cicely Tyson) of a lost soldier.

There are lapses in logic and tone. Sal, though amusing, dominates the movie with a logorrhea of cracks without break. Also, is it believable that the introverted Shepherd would travel hundreds of miles to seek out a “buddy” he has not communicated with for 30 years and ask him to participate in his son’s burial?  Finally, a finale that turns on Nealon and Mueller sporting full Marine dress blues is a sweet image but wholly unbelievable.

Yes, a flag that flies mostly spiritedly, but one with rips.

The Divine Order
“The Divine Order” addresses late-blooming women’s rights issues in the West: the lack of suffrage among Swiss women as late as 1971.  The story is told through Nora, housewife and mother, who lives with her decent husband, their two sons, and her father-in-law in a small village, where there is little awareness of worldwide civil rights movements. “Equality of the sexes is a sin against nature,” intones one character.

Nora is a modest woman who “would like to do something different,” like taking up a part time job, but she cannot work without her husband’s permission. Her frustration runs up against a couple of activists advocating for women’s franchise in a national referendum.  Articulate and liked by all, she joins a sturdy but beleaguered band of females who take on their town—and the menfolk—to lead a local campaign for the vote, an issue that will be put before only male voters.  The film has a touch of a modern-day “Lysistrata,” with the lady activists separating themselves into a makeshift dormitory away from their spouses. A redemptive ending challenges “The Divine Order.”

The film, written and directed by Petra Volpe, benefits greatly from a fine lead performance by Marie Leuenberger, brilliantly playing an unassertive person who blossoms into a convinced advocate. She not only discovers her own activist skills but also awakens to her sexual self and “personhood,” aided by a bouncy feminist lecturer from outside (it is to be noted that this is an understated, subtle comedy, but some sexual elements are rather blunt and definitely “R”).  The film was a major winner at the 2017 Swiss Film Prizes (the film, opening December 1, runs 96 minutes, is unrated, and is in Swiss German with English subtitles).

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.