“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Review

Three Billboards

Almost as soon as the audience is introduced to Mildred Hayes, the protagonist of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s clear that she is not a woman to be trifled with. Framed from behind as she strides into a room, taking charge immediately as Carter Burwell’s commanding and almost heroic theme plays, she almost resembles the lone gunslinger of a classic Western – the one who would stand up for their cause against anyone who got in their way. Yet the more I saw of Mildred Hayes the more I felt that Three Billboards is demonstrating the folly of such a figure, and how fighting against the world does more harm than good.

Hayes has a good reason to be angry, though – her teenage daughter was violently murdered not far from her own home and seven months later the police still haven’t made any arrests, prompting her to hire out the titular billboards to hold them accountable and remind them of her daughter’s case. She’s a harsh woman who swears up a storm and doesn’t care what anyone thinks, completely willing to ruin her own reputation and the reputation of anyone who gets in her way as long as it means her daughter’s killer can be found. It’s a dangerous role that verges on being unlikable, but Frances McDormand delivers a career-best performance to suggest that a lifetime of pain and loss has forced Mildred to never acknowledge her own vulnerability again. McDormand commands every scene she’s in, overpowering and single-minded in her determination to get someone to listen to her. Where Mildred is assured and uncompromising in her belief that she is in the right, Sam Rockwell’s performance as the racist and violent Office Jason Dixon is unbalanced and volatile – lashing out whenever someone accuses him of being wrong. They’re two completely different figures yet the actors compliment each other perfectly, with both finding moments of tenderness in characters that push the boundaries of how far one can go while still being sympathetic. Somewhere between the two is Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the primary focus of Hayes’s ire despite being deeply respected in town. Willoughby opposes Hayes’s accusations while begrudgingly respecting her strength, with writer-director Martin McDonagh’s script critiquing aspects of the police institution while also acknowledging the difficulty of the job.

While the humour in McDonagh’s previous films was as black as comedy can get they were undoubtedly still comedies – even if they did explore topics such as hitmen, psychotic murders, and dog-nappers. With Three Billboards the writer-director employs the strengths that made his prior scripts so entertaining – vulgar wit, politically incorrect dialogue, and frequently absurd conversations and scenarios – while still telling a dramatic and morally conflicted story of a mother’s frustration and fury over her lost daughter. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny but never feels as though the situation at its core is being made light of, and it marks McDonagh’s most confident work as a filmmaker yet.

They say drama comes from conflict, and there’s a considerable amount of conflict between the characters in Three Billboards. A powerful sense of anger can be felt throughout much of the film, and nearly every player in it either yells curses, insults, or actual punches at one another before it’s all over. What surprised me, though, is how despite this the story promotes the message that hatred never really solves anything. There aren’t any easy answers to many of the questions on offer within Three Billboards, and some who may not deserve redemption still seek it before the credits roll, but it’s a film that demonstrates how anger can’t fix a problem – just start new ones.

4 and a half stars.

“Coco” Review

Coco poster.jpg

The title of Pixar’s new animated delight refers not to the main character, but to his great-grandmother, Mamá Coco. It’s a fitting title to encapsulate the themes of family evident in Coco, and the importance of balancing ambition with familial connections. The protagonist is actually twelve-year-old Miguel Rivera, the youngest member of a close-nit family of Mexican shoemakers who have forbidden any sort of music due to Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoning his wife and child to follow his dream of being a musician. Miguel, of course, is obsessed with music, playing his homemade guitar in a secret room dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz – Mexico’s most famous musician, and possibly Miguel’s long lost great-grandfather. When Miguel attempts to steal…er, borrow, de la Cruz’s guitar to enter his village’s Day of the Dead talent show, he winds up cursed and trapped in the Land of the Dead. In order to return to the Land of the Living, he needs to get the blessing of a deceased ancestor – but one who will encourage his desire to play music.

Coco is a beautiful love letter to Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead holiday. While it’s not the first animated film to do so, with 2014’s The Book of Life even having a similar plot, director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina have filled the feature with vivid neon colours, a lively soundtrack, imaginative set-pieces, and the usual array of inventive characters so that the film works as a respectful depiction and representation of foreign traditions while still fitting alongside other classic features in Pixar’s filmography. The Land of the Dead is filled with visual treats, with strong contrasting orange and blue tones across the buildings and the delightful multi-coloured designs of the alebrije – animalistic spirit guides who serve the dead. Fittingly for a movie where music plays such an important role, the story is often told through the soundtrack – with Michael Giacchino’s score alternating between a simple acoustic guitar and full mariachi bands. The original songs by Frozen composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, with Adrian Molina and Germaine Franco, regularly mark Coco’s best scenes, with a musical battle towards the climax that was easily the standout moment from any animated picture I saw in 2017. The main song, “Remember Me”, is reprised and covered in so many different ways throughout the film that while I found it cheesy and bland when it first played I was fighting back tears during its final rendition.

Pixar continue their trend of believable animated characters with the cast of Coco. Anthony Gonzalez puts an astonishing amount of emotion into his performance as Miguel, speaking and singing, so that the heart of the story and Miguel’s desires is never swept away by the cartoonish setting and hijinks. The animation of Héctor Rivera – a dead conman who enlists Miguel to help him visit his family in the Land of the Living – is inspired, with different parts of his skeletal body acting separately from each other at times. Every member of Miguel’s family, living and dead, feels individual, and it’s refreshing to see how even when they disagree with Miguel they all want what’s best for him. The design of Grandma Coco is particularly heart wrenching, with a kindly withered face that makes even the slightest facial response a major emotional moment. But the real standout character of Coco has to be Dante – a hairless dog that is possibly the dumbest character to appear in a Pixar film, with bulging eyes and a floppy tongue that regularly ends up wrapped around Dante’s own face. From the moment this dog appeared on screen I was giggling like a mad man and continued to do so for every scene he appeared. If Pixar doesn’t make an animated short just for Dante they’re wasting one of their best ever characters.

Coco is a familiar story told well. It hits all the beats one would expect from a Pixar film, and many of the twists are predictable from the outset. I was disappointed by a villainous reveal towards the end, particularly as up until that point the characters all had valid reasons to oppose each other without feeling unnecessarily antagonistic, but ultimately a film about music needs a big final number. Familiar doesn’t mean bad, though, and due to the Mexican influences and the quality of filmmaking Coco demonstrates how effective traditional stories can be.

4 and a half stars.