Review – Signs of the Times (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)

Although NOT a true story, it sure feels like one. Outstanding performances, a brilliant script, and no superheros, explosions, or CGI effects. My prediction is, that come Oscar time, look to see this film to be nominated in several categories; i.e., Best Picture, Actress, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor.

Mildred Hayes (expertly performed by Frances McDormand) is a hard-edged woman seething like a simmering volcano. Her teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton) was brutally raped, killed, and torched and the local police in Ebbing have zero clues. No witnesses, no DNA, no blood, no nothing, and the chief of police, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is still just affected as the mom, but he’s in for a shocker. Mildred, all grit and piss, buys three billboards just outside of town and has them ask the question: Sheriff Willoughby, why haven’t you done anything after seven months?

Naturally, this sets off a firestorm of contempt for Mildred, first with her teen son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), then her boorish ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes) who’s shacking up with a brainless girl-toy (Samara Weaving). Worst of all, she’s angered Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a sociopathic racist mama’s boy who has a violent streak in him. But Sheriff Willoughby, a loving and fair family man who’s slowly dying of cancer, takes it all in stride and does what he can to quell Mildred’s rage. But everything changes after the good Sheriff dies expectantly.

Things slide downhill with the billboards getting defaced, a new African-American sheriff taking over, Officer Dixon getting fired, and Mildred cranking her anger level up to 11. The only ones that come to her rescue are the innocent Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who owns the billboard shop, and little person car salesman, James (Peter Dinklage). This town should have been called Redemption for all its damaged, broken people who are desperately trying to put their lives back together. For some, it may never happen, for others, it will may years. Will Mildred ever find closure for what happened? Perhaps not, but that’s the road journeyed, isn’t it?

British/Irish playwright & screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths) really knows his stuff. Whether it’s writing a tight script, directing a scene for maximum impact, or showing off his keen sense of style, this movie doesn’t rely on gimmicks or subterfuge. It’s thought-provoking, clean, well-crafted, and doesn’t veer off into meaningless sub-plots. For a tasty little dramedy like this, I wonder why it hasn’t been advertised more. Forget DC heroes or CG animation, you’ve got to check this one out!

The whole cast rocks with McDormand a natural shoe-in for Best Actress. Harrelson is terrific and doesn’t play a dick in this movie, that part is left for the amazing Rockwell who goes through a cathartic transformation that is wondrous to behold. Dinklage, for the extended cameo he has, is great (porn-stach and all), and Samara Weaving (daughter of the Matrix‘s Hugo Weaving) is fabulous.

Prisoners (2013)

How far will a parent go to take revenge on their child? This film answers that question with Hugh Jackman starring as a man who doesn’t have adamantium claws shooting out of his hands… although that might have helped in this movie.

We start with an ordinary Thanksgiving dinner in a rural Pennsylvania suburb. Keller Dover (Jackman), a devote Christian and survivalist is a loving, but stern family man that has a son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), a loving wife Grace (Maria Bello), and a cute little daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). They go down the street to visit the Birch’s for Turkey Day dinner and there we meet veterinarian Franklin (Terrance Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) and their cute little daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).

While out playing after dinner, the two little tykes suddenly disappear and the two families go into panic mode with Keller taking the lead, his fiery temper getting the best of him. Called to investigate the disappearance is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and soon a suspect is caught. His name is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a geeky-looking, simple-minded man who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. His protective aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo) tells the police that he couldn’t have committed any crimes due to his mental condition, and he is soon set free due to a complete lack of evidence.

But that doesn’t sit well with Keller as he’s convinced that Alex DID commit the crime and has both children hidden somewhere. So much so, that he kidnaps the man and holds him up in an abandoned apartment, tied up and gagged. There, with Franklin’s uneasy help, Keller savagely beats and tortures the man to glean any information from him about the whereabouts of their children. Alex, bloodied and in agonizing pain, holds to his story of not knowing as Keller ups the ante, applying more and more means of torture to break him as the days pass.

Meanwhile, Thor…  sorry, I mean, Loki is on the trail of a sinister fellow (Jeff Pope) that’s looking more and more like he’s the real criminal. Franklin, seeing on TV that Loki has apprehended a would-be suspect, decides to drop out of his torture duties. A search of the suspects home turns up bloodied clothes of the children, maze drawings everywhere, and a bizarre crime novel, but no kids! Is this new guy really the kidnapper? Is beaten-to-a-pulp Alex really innocent? And what’s with all the hidden snakes?

I can’t reveal the third act revelation, but suffice to say, I figured out the answer back in act two. It does, however, come with a great final act, and I will admit, a clever brush stroke for the last final frames of the movie. Directed by Canadian film maker Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay written by Aaron Guzikowski, this emotional, complex, and lengthy (2hrs 26min) drama is a riveting story and the effects it has on the people involved.

What could have easily been condensed in less than 2 hours, this who-done-it has so many plot holes, that you leave scratching your head at the end of the movie. I’m still trying to figure out some of them as I’m writing this. Even the characters don’t behave like they should in real life and you feel like yelling at the screen, “You idiot, didn’t you hear him??”. It is, however, beautifully shot by Roger A. Deakins, as he captures the overall feel of the film, with washed-out grays and bleak-looking blues.

Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and Dano are to be applauded for their graphic performances here. Jackman’s Keller has such a terrible inner rage when he unleashes onto Dano’s Jones, that it’s disturbing to see. Sure, as Wolverine, Jackman was ripping and carving the bad guys in twain, but the bad guys probably had it coming. Here, it’s just plain unsettling to watch. Gyllenhaal likewise, goes that extra mile, giving his character a facial tic for believability. And Dano, much like actor Crispin Glover, gives such a restrained, twisted, and harrowing show as the tortured man, that you don’t know whether to root for him or not.

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