The final day of this year’s jam-packed festival started off with a definite masterpiece in thrilling storytelling, followed by the final film of the festival: a comedy-drama that became the best entry to a director of fluctuating talent.
Another excellent year of film programming saw out my second visit to the festival, serving up some stone-cold masterpieces that I’m looking forward to revisiting when they’re on general release. Though I’d caught up on everything I wanted to see this year by the time the first film of the day had ended, I managed to catch up with a Netflix feature that I’d missed a few days prior.
“Violence only begets more violence.” Someone read that on a bookmark once. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A) an all-out community war develops after Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) pays for three billboards on an isolated road to provoke the police force – led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – into reopening a cold case into the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Mildred knows that with the help of a local news anchor, she’ll be able to bring the case back into the public and police consciousness, and hopefully find the person who committed the heinous act. It’s a relatively simple set-up, with the first scene introducing Mildred’s intentions, so there’s very little time wasted in getting to the meat of the story. Martin McDonagh’s scripts are one of his strongest suits: In Bruges was a boisterously funny crime caper, and, while Seven Psychopaths was a jumbled mess it still had whip-smart dialogue for its ensemble to play with. Three Billboards’ script is tighter than his previous works, and shows that McDonagh’s true flare is in creating hilariously caustic monologues for its characters to spit out (McDormand’s softly impassioned soliloquy about “those Bloods and those Crips” is exquisitely menacing).
Additional to Willoughby’s despondency at his own imminent tragedy is the blockheaded Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an openly racist bigot whose unlawful approach to enforcement puts him on a direct trajectory to Mildred’s embittered battle. Their animosity toward each other brings Three Billboards’ script to life in a number of punchy scenes that are rich with nuance and character growth: Dixon starts as a reprehensible dick, and though his record of “persons-of-colour torturing” doesn’t vindicate him entirely, his character gets a comprehensive arc that’s sympathetic even in light of his volatile history, and Mildred’s often menacing actions don’t absolve her. No one in Ebbing is innocent, but none are truly detestable (except for a few minor characters introduced to propel the mystery toward its ambiguous conclusion). Every character here is fully realised thanks to the terrifically acerbic script, and every actor – from the main cast to the John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, and Peter Dinklage – bring their A-game. There’s only one true dud of a subplot – Willoughby’s homelife is largely undercooked – but that does very little to harm this wildly unpredictable and routinely surprising thriller tackling grief and forgiveness in a world where violence begets violence. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass in superlative filmmaking that’s both howlingly funny and immeasurably sad at a dazzling rate, and one that I would have happily watched again the same day.
Noah Baumbach is a man of undeniable talent, but his filmography has never been one to win me over as much as it does with the Academy or his advocates. With The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (B-), he’s made a film that connected with me in a way that I didn’t realise he could, though I’m still at arms-length with his capabilities. Harold (Dustin Hoffman) is an overbearing patriarch who makes no secret of the dissatisfaction he sees in his children, played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel: each get-together they have descends into a dryly funny verbal skirmish, with Noah Baumbach writing them all as flawed-yet-sympathetic New Yorkers with a bag full of neuroses. Mostly everyone gets their time to shine – though it’s clear that Marvel was given the short straw with character development – and the script is as acute as ever to give a cheeky insight into this dysfunctional family, but it’s a little protracted, especially seeing how basic the narrative is. Some of these plots do get shoved aside for the admittedly brilliant Sandler (it’s more his vehicle than anyone else’s), which is both superb and a little frustrating with the knowledge that Stiller and Sandler can give multi-layered, nuanced performances when given the right material. It’s dispiriting that they endlessly choose multi-million dollar vehicles, and this highlights that. Baumbach still doesn’t set me alight, but The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was an often funny shot of familial pessimism with a broken, beating heart at its ‘greatest hits-style’ centre.
Over the course of these 11 days, I managed 28 films, 2 interviews (online soon), 2 illuminating screen talks and a whole host of artist Q&A’s. And with that, the London Film Festival draws to a close for another year. I was disheartened with my choices at first, hitting a new 2017 low-point far earlier than expected, but this years’ festival was more bottom heavy than the last, with some of the best genre films of the year coming at me out of nowhere. The true richness of the BFI’s winning programme meant there were a lot of early wake-ups, a few frustrating clashes, and a whole slew of underground productions, there was never a time where there wasn’t something to be doing. Despite writer’s fatigue and general exhaustion, The 61st London Film Festival was, once again, a pleasurable experience, and one that wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without your readership and interaction.
There’ll be a brief hiatus whilst I catch up on some much-needed rest, but you can still read each entry in this year’s festival here, or just head to the main page and select a past review or article. BFSR have some exciting things coming up in the near future – including the aforementioned interviews with cast and crew of festival favourite The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and other new projects with pre-established publications and friends. Stay tuned on Twitter and Facebook!