“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Let Frances McDormand become “The Lobster”

As far as I can determine, Ebbing, MO is fictitious. I’ve been in the Missouri Ozarks myself a couple times, once in 1983 when I stayed in Joplin (later to be hit by a tornado) and visited the AOG headquarters in Springfield out of religious curiosity. In December 1992, after Clinton got in, I had flown to Memphis and driven up to Sikeston and west across US 60, where it’s flat until you suddenly encounter the gentle uplift of the Ozark plateau.

But Martin McDonagh filmed “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in the foothills of the North Carolina Blue Ridge, perhaps near Brown Mountain, where the ridges look larger than they really would.  I like to see movies set in specific places really filmed there.  There are shots of a hillside quarry that I don’t recall seeing in my own numerous adventures in the NC mountain country.

By the way, I think I drove through Branson in 1983, and my mother and aunt went to a concert there once upon a time.

But let’s get to the movie, a black comedy that gets Lobster-wicked. Frances McDormand (the pregnant detective in “Fargo”) plays Mildred Hayes, a single divorced mom out for justice after losing a daughter to rape a few years back. Since the town police chief (Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson [“Natural Born Killers”, 1994]) has failed to solve the case, Mildred coughs up multiple grands to rent three billboards on a “mountain” road outside town.  The early scene where she pays “Red” (a freckled Caleb Landry Jones) the bounty sets the tone for what follows. Soon she has a session with the dentist (“Little Shop of Horrors”) where she stabs the dentist in the thumbnail with a drill. Bill is ready to arrest her, but coughs up blood all over her and is quickly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. (Lance Armstrong coughed up blood when his testicular cancer metastasized, and we all know about his spectacular recovery, his bicycle races, and his own fall.)  Now I get into spoiler territory, out of necessity. Bill ends his own life, not out of anger over Mildred, but because he doesn’t want to become a medical spectacle.

Then there is the angry gay cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who goes on a rampage and throws Red out the window, and does other stuff and gets fired.  Mildred thinks he torched her signs, and winds up torching toe police department herself. All of this set up an opportunity to solve the case and lead to a vigilante, extra-judicial (like Duterte) revenge conclusion. Bill writes post-suicide letters to a number of people, telling them their good sides.  Dixon, even fired, gets the idea that he can redeem himself, even though he is badly burned and disfigured when the police station is torched.  He goes into a bar (Ebbing isn’t big enough for a gay bar per se, and gay bars rarely have brawls compared to straight bars), and overhears a man bragging about raping a girl.  He thinks he finally found the suspect.  And even if he is the wrong guy, he and Mildred can enforce the death penalty themselves on someone.  Along the way, she pretends to date the dwarf James (Peter Dinklage) even if he isn’t physically he perfect “catch”. It gets Shakespearian.

Bill has two young daughters, whom he indulges, like on a fishing trip.  But Mildred’s kids are more adult, particularly Robbie Hayes, of college age, played by Lucas Hedges, who looks muscled up and buff for this role, ready to protect mom.  Lucas, as in all of his roles, talks like a polished, educated young man, better than the people in the surroundings that reared him.  It’s as if being a successful person were more about genes than mere upbringing and parenting. Mildred checks that he is sleeping soundly on the early morning that she goes out with Dixon to enforce extra-judicial capital punishment on the rapist,  because she knows her son would stop her from doing it.  But the movie declines to show the final execution that we know will happen, no questions asked.

My overall reaction was that this satire makes fun of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”, the poor white trash who rose up out of the politics of resentment to put Donald Trump in the White House, with the help of the Russians, who sent fake news to people like this.

The Amazon link above is for the screenplay script.  This one will be taught in classes.

The bar scene has curious musical accompaniment: the andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata #1 in C, K. 279 (not the famous #15); the slow movement sounds almost like Scarlatti.  The film music score is vt Carter Burwell, whom I think I have heard of (maybe met) through the Metropolis Ensemble.

Bell Mountain in the Missouri Ozarks, Wiki.

First picture is Mother’s from near Branson; second is mine near Brown Mountain in NC (near the filming location).  And, oh, yes, in 2002 I almost wound up working for “the state” as a contract programmer in Jefferson City (per diem while I was still living in Minneapolis).

Name:  “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director, writer:  Martin McDonagh
Released:  2017/11
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E Street, Thanksgiving Day, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  115
Rating:  R
Companies:  Fox Searchlight, Film4
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, November 23, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

“Manchester by the Sea”: an uncle becomes guardian of a teen, who turns out to have to parent the uncle

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Name: Manchester by the Sea
Director, writer:  Kenneth Lonergan; Matt Damon is a producer
Released:  2016/11
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/11/24, Thanksgiving night sneak preview, starts today
Length 137
Rating R (implicit sex, including teens, in a strongly dramatic context)
Companies: Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions
Link: official;  Vox review

Manchester by the Sea”, is the name of a town along the north coast of Massachusetts, and it’s the setting for the newest family drama film from Kenneth Lonergan.  The film is billed as a tear-jerker and as an essay on involuntary family responsibility.

The protagonist is a 40-year-old apartment handyman from Quincy, MA, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck (and the obvious comparison is his role in the 2005 film “Lonesome Jim” (2005), also “Gerry” (2002)). He does good work but his interpersonal skills are mixed, as there is a slight degree of Asperger in his personality. (Oddly, the has personality behavioral quirks like sensitivity to being looked at in bars, and starts a fight over it.)  One day he gets a call from relatives in Manchester that his slightly  older brother has had another heart attack.  When he arrives, his brother has passed away.  And soon, the family lawyer is challenging him to become legal guardian of the brother’s (Kyle Chandler) erratic son Patrick (Lucas Hedges – the last name is tricky, not the more common “Hodges”).  He will become trustee, and the will provides him some income for doing so.  So this sounds like another “Raising Helen” scenario.

But Lee has actually contributed some of his own karma.  An early scene on a boat in the bay shows him bonding with the little boy (Ben O’Brien) Patrick, out of character for his otherwise sometimes introverted personality.  Later (by the time the moviegoer has gotten used to the flashbacks) we learn of a late night party where some inattention to home safety by Lee led to a house fire that destroyed his wife’s life.  We already know of the divorce, and ex-about wife Randi’s (Michelle Williams) problem with alcohol.  By present day, she has an older man dating her and having given her another child.  The older man is quite possessive.

So, partly because of Lee’s actions, mom would not be a suitable parent.  It seems that Lee is the best possible father figure for Patrick.

Patrick is emotionally disturbed but also probably profoundly gifted.  He plays hockey and basketball, and leads a rock band, all in high school.  He has the athletic talent to become a hockey pro, and probably the musical talent to become a rock star.  It’s as if someone like Bryce Harper also able to become a concert musician existed  (Bryce has already made a short film for ESPN).  Patrick does a good job of handling interpersonal conflicts among others in his band, so that bodes well for a future music career from a business aspect (even if that’s Trump-like).  He doesn’t want to go to college, but Peter Thiel would be fine with that (Thiel funds his own entrepeneurs like Taylor Wilson to skip college and start innovative businesses while teens, and Thiel regards college, with its student debt fiasco, a scam and ponzi scheme). Patrick is also very interested in keeping dad’s boat, which is breaking down and will cost $$$ to fix.  He has already learned to run it, but can do so legally until 18 or 21.  Most of all Patrick doesn’t want to move back Quincy because he has his life (including two girl friends he wants to “score” with)  in Manchester.  (Patrick also reminds me of the piano prodigy “Ephram” from the WB show “Everwood”, played by Gregory Smith.)

Patrick is also very verbal and snarky at times.  He is prone to sudden emotional breakdowns, especially over the idea of his dad’s corpse staying in a freezer before the burial and funeral, which seem to take a long time to happen. But otherwise, it’s apparent that Patrick is rapidly becoming the parent and Lee the child.  It’s Patrick who has the talents to make a lot of money on his own, without college or much financial support.  It’s Patrick whose gifts could provide a living for everybody else.  So playing his dad seems like a good deal.

The film doesn’t make much of the brother’s congenital or maybe genetic heart disease that causes his early death, but it’s fair to wonder if it could run in the family.  One could another movie plot where heart transplant is considered (as with Dick Cheney).

The film is long (137 minutes) and filmed in regular aspect, which tends to emphasize close-ups and de-emphasize the gorgeous coastal scenery, even in winter.

Lucas Hedges, apparently 19, seems like a very charismatic teen actor, whose personality tends to dominate the films he is in (much as is the case with Richard Harmon, 25, for example).  Patrick here resembles “Bob” in Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem“, when Bob says “I’m nobody’s tool” and when Bob essentially parents Christopher Waltz’s Qohen Leth. Lucas would have been 15 when acting the part, and he completely dominates the second half of the film.

Some other films for comparison on filial piety include “Saving Sarah Cain” (a mainstream columnist becomes involuntary guardian of Amish sister’s kids) and “Gracie’s Choice“.

It does indeed happen, that childless career people are suddenly expected to raise nieces and nephews.  Much of the generosity of inheritance law (from a left-wing perspective, at least) expects “you take care of your own first.”

The picture above is mine (2015), from Cape Cod.

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 25, 2016 at 12:15 PM EDT)