Bleakness and blackness
There are those who might say that Frances McDormand’s portrayal of a bereaved mother in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is but a reprise of her pregnant police chief in “Fargo.” And in many ways that is true.
There is the same sense of barely repressed rage and grief, as well as the glimmer of wry humor and empathy. But I think that is simply what McDormand is as an actor: concealing deep, dark, disturbing emotions beneath a rather bland exterior. If anything, McDormand’s Mildred in “Three Billboards” is even more generous with expressing her feelings. There are instances when Mildred’s carefully constructed facade crumbles, as when she reels from a cruel ambush by her ex-husband.
It is McDormand who provides the biggest reason for trooping to a movie house and sitting through “Three Billboards.” Otherwise, the movie is a bleak walk through the human condition, particularly how disparate, discrete decisions and events add up to an escalation of conflict and violence that cannot be undone.
The plot outline is simple enough. Mildred is a mother chafing over her daughter’s rape, murder and burning, and determined to light a fire (literally, it turns out) beneath the asses of Ebbing authorities, rents out three billboards demanding an explanation from the police, particularly police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
The billboards, standing three-in-a-row on a hidden rural road, throw the town into an uproar, particularly since Chief Willoughby is dying from cancer. Complicating matters is police deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a simmering vessel of resentment whose response to most crises is explosive violence.
Throughout the movie, I very much wanted it to end. When complication builds upon complication, the movie ups the fear and loathing factor. Director-scriptwriter Martin McDonagh opens the film with a stark revelatory arc, but soon turns it into a dark comedy that leaves no character unscathed with its broad sweep of humanity’s failings.
I can’t say I loved Mildred. She already had my sympathy from the opening alone, but she turned too complex and ornery for shallow appreciation. But that is precisely what the filmmakers may have sought from the audience.
Let’s make this clear. I desperately wanted to like “Black Panther.” I yearned for the chance to fall for a movie with a predominantly black cast and production team and faithful to the rich resonances of African culture. And all that “Black Panther” provides in spades.
But toward the end came a disappointing turn (spoiler alert!). After defeating his cousin Erik, also known as “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), King T’Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), decides to break his country Wakanda’s history of isolationism by sharing its advanced technology with … African-American families in Los Angeles.
Why he would go so far to spread the riches of Wakanda is a mystery. Their neighbors, after all, are among the poorest, most desperate and yes, violence-ridden countries in the world. What a frog-leaping advance it would provide for their poverty-ridden fellow Africans!
But it seems the filmmakers, including black director-writer Ryan Coogler, looked on Africa as merely a setting for the movie and a design inspiration. In that sense, is Killmonger a more empathetic hero since more than personal vengeance, he is motivated by the desire to place Wakanda at the head of an international African resurgence, albeit through war and violence? But at least he looks beyond the isolation that Wakanda represents!
Still, philosophical disappointment aside, “Black Panther” is exciting, vibrant. Unlike other superhero films, “Black Panther” gives viewers a rich backstory to its heroes and villains, while providing the necessary glitz and gloss, particularly in its techy scenes.
Boseman and Jordan are supported by a heavyweight cast of actors of African descent, from Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest, to Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, as well as Andy Serkis as a South African arms dealer. And what about the all-female special force, the Dora Milaje, eh? Talk about kicking butt!
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