(On Cable TV, October 2018) As I’ve grown up to become a cranky middle-aged movie reviewer who gets to complain that they don’t make them like they used to, here comes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to reassure me that while original mid-budget realistic drama movies are on life support, they’re not dead yet. It does help that even within the context of a contemporary adult setting, writer/director Martin McDonagh gets off to a roaring start with a strong premise: a small-town woman putting up three highly critical billboards demanding justice for her murdered daughter. The event sparks dramatic conflict across an ensemble cast of strong actors, reaching across a community to spur characters to action. As befits a film written by a playwright, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an actor’s dream with several strong sequences, well-developed characters and a dark sense of comedy that keeps viewers interested from beginning to end. Frances McDormand now deservedly owns an Oscar for her performance here, but there’s a lot more good material from Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. A strong plot means that the film’s 115 minutes go by in a flash, with a conclusion that provides some comfort but not an entirely wrapped-up happy ending. It’s quite a ride, and I couldn’t be happier to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri leveraged its critical success to become a commercial one as well.
(On TV, March 2017) Issues-based thrillers aren’t always easy to watch, and there are certainly enough tough moments in Mississippi Burning to uphold this rule of thumb. But it’s also a thriller with a muscular anti-racism message that is also comforting given the atrocities portrayed in the film. The story of two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in rural Mississippi, this is a movie that pulls no punches in portraying the often-unbelievable racism of barely half a century ago. Quite a few buildings burn here, and the constant abuse suffered by the black characters is nothing short of revolting. While the film is certainly problematic in its white-saviour narrative, it’s also curiously frank in the way it embraces this aspect of itself: threatening, torturing and arresting unrepentant KKK members is the next best thing to punching a Nazi in the face in American cinema wish fulfillment, and Mississippi Burning certainly embraces this aggressive approach to the problem. Gene Hackman truly stars as a veteran FBI agent whose folksy bonhomie barely conceals a tough-and-violent approach whenever the chips are down. Contrasting him is Willem Defoe is a curiously straitlaced role as a far more by-the-book supervisor who nonetheless gets to let his wilder instincts run free in the last act of the film. Frances McDormand also has a good turn as an acquiescent housewife who nonetheless gets a few shots in. Far more interesting than the “social issues drama” moniker would suggest, Mississippi Burning turns into a vengeful police thriller toward the end, with satisfying justice being delivered in spades. The relationship to the true events that inspired the story is incidental, the black characters definitely taking second place to the white protagonists but, in the end, it makes for curiously compelling cinema. This being said, Mississippi Burning is exactly the kind of film that other effective anti-racism movies such as The Help are meant to complement: it’s part of the story, but not all of it.