TIFF Critic’s Notebook 3: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Martin McDonagh and his brother John Michael started making movies about the same time; for The Guard, the most uncomplicatedly funny and successful of the films they’ve both made, I’m inclined to give the latter the edge. They’re very much brothers with a shared sensibility grown more matched over years spent living together as adults, while they wrote their separate work and watched the same movies: a gift for idiomatically spry humor, often in the insult-directed vein, balancing out an attendant tendency to go heavy on Catholic guilt and a fairly simplistic form of moral “complication.” Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri sets up its premise fast: it’s been many months since her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered, no arrests have been made and grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) is livid. Spying those three long-unused billboards on a rarely-used road, she rents them out and puts up a series of provocative messages demanding to know why more hasn’t been done. This doesn’t sit well with the townfolk, most particularly racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell); tensions build, etc.
The cast is uniformly quite strong, dialogue often quite amusing: Rockwell does a very good drunk act, McDormand is predictably in total command, and she’s pitted against Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby — as usual, his line readings are a highlight. This may calcify into schtick quite soon (he’s been doing a jaw-grinding thing over the last five years that’s starting to seem like part of a package deal), but right now he’s still pretty much my favorite working not-quite-character actor. (Also in the stacked cast is Caleb Landry Jones in a rare non-psychopath role, which is a nice change of pace.) So I didn’t have a bad time, even if the landscapes look nothing like Missouri (because it was shot in tax break-friendly North Carolina instead) and there’s no way two beers in a small-town MO bar would cost $8: some key regional research seems to not have been conducted, the state chosen primarily for its currently quite fresh association with racism in Ferguson.
Here’s where my reservations kick in: Mildred starts the film as a completely sympathetic and righteous character, tying her fury over the police’s incompetence to their legacy of racist conduct. But of course, All Is Not As It Seems: at various points, we learn that she drove drunk with her kids a long time ago, that her daughter wanted to leave and go live with Mildred’s ex-husband, etc. People are complicated and more than they appear to be at first, a very elementary point many screenwriters seem to feel they’re the very first to discover; here, you can expect a new fact to drip down about every 15 minutes to “complicate” your opinion of McDormand, Rockwell or Harrelson. If I know that this’ll happen, there’s really not much complication: we learn a key fact about Rockwell’s character halfway through that’s supposed to perform one such pivot, but a stupid drunk racist asshole is still a stupid drunk racist asshole as far as I’m concerned. All that complication is really pretty simple, and don’t even get me started on the scene where McDormand tells the fakest-looking CG deer since Almodovar’s Julieta (is this a trend now?) that maybe God doesn’t exist and we’re all terrified — this being a McDonagh joint, I knew something along those lines had to be coming, but it’s still a pain. The film is just fine, but there’s only so far I can go with this kind of screenwriting.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous three films (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster) all operated in pretty much the same way: a closed world with a fixed set of arbitrary rules which structure a plot about how society constructs/constricts human behavior. Dogtooth and Alps are fairly oblique, The Lobster less so: the first and third of those are funny, the second not so much, and all are underpinned by a fair amount of sadism. There’s still plenty of the latter in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, less so the leavening levity, and the structure is entirely different. Cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a successful career, comfortable family and benignly kinky sex life with his wife (Nicole Kidman); all seems generally well, but his regular and unexplained meetings with Martin (Barry Keoghan) — a slightly creepy, affectless teenage boy who he tries to keep secret from others — points to something troubling. Pedophilia leaps to immediate mind; the actual answer, and what sets the plot into motion, is impossible to predict and I’ll leave it unstated. (Despite what I’m about to say, Lanthimos is someone I expect to be keeping up with for a while, I take him seriously and it’s worth seeing this just to keep tabs on his progression.)
Unlikely the fairly complicated points Lanthimos was making in, say, Dogtooth by paralleling the tyranny of the family and larger nation-state, or in analyzing how society treats both couples and single people in The Lobster, he seems to be getting at something simpler here: when it’s your life on the line, all ethics go completely out the window. It really shouldn’t take nearly two hours or this much elaborate plot scaffolding to prove this simple point, and the plot seems reverse-engineered from a penultimate scene that seems intended simply to get Farrell’s antihero to do the single least likeable thing a character could do onscreen. I wouldn’t mind that too much, but the film’s not as funny as usual, which makes it a little ponderous (which is what tends to happen when you open with a needle-drop of some requiem or other).
Killing is also distractingly obsessed with Kubrick. Dogtooth and Alps used largely static framing, disrupted by characters and objects coming into the frame from the sides or, at especially disconcerting moments, from above and below. The Lobster added some slow zooms to the equation, but Killing goes full Shining: seemingly a third of the shots are either Steadicam walk-and-talks down hospital corridors doubling for Danny’s bike rides and performed at the same speed, or shots with a fisheye lens that makes even a suburban bedroom look like the Overlook Hotel’s ballroom. That’s before you factor in the use of Ligeti and Kidman, the latter knowingly echoing her Eyes Wide Shut role, especially whenever she’s staring into the bedroom mirror. Lanthimos remains very talented, but this seems like a little bit of a self-misdirection away from an original visual language into the working through of influences that were seemingly already worked through.