Saturday, 27 January 2018

Best Supporting Actor 2017: Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Woody Harrelson received his third Oscar nomination for portraying Chief Bill Willoughby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a murdered teenage girl, who rents three billboards in an attempt to force the local police force to solve the murder. I will say I loved Three Billboards the first time I saw the film, though I had a few reservations, however over time the film has come under intense criticism. Of course this likely would not be so fervent however given that it once claimed the best picture front runner position, without having any assumed "importance" in a general sense, which in the days of social media leads to more scrutiny on the film than would be received by a recently discovered Vincent van Gogh painting. Well, finally re-watching the film, with all this negativity swirling around,  I have to say...my appreciation for the film has only burgeoned. Now with the entire film in perspective I can see it is not about the heroic mother fighting for her daughter in the slightest, as I will admit I wrongly assumed it was in my initial viewing, there are no heroes here only flawed people trying to make due with their losses. Now there is major facet of the backlash I haven't dealt with, but I'll get to that with the second review.

First let's have a nice easy time looking at Woody Harrelson successfully breaking the over twenty year gap of having no two supporting actors in a single film nominated. Harrelson, despite having the smaller role, managed to find his way into this lineup even with so much praise going to two of his co-stars, one in the very same category. Harrelson's achievement then is notable and it becomes readily obvious why he was able to break that trend through his work here. On the surface it seems we might get just a good old Woody Harrelson performance as a good old boy. Not that there isn't anything inherently wrong with that as Woody Harrelson only need compete with Matthew McConaughey when comes to the primary actor for a good old boy role. In fact Harrelson quite excels in that facet particularly as it relates to director/writer Martin McDonagh's humor, which is technically is a touch more low key in this film than his previous efforts. Harrelson's comedic timing is perfection for what is to be had through Willoughby's quiet way of venting his frustrations over the situation, whether it be confusion over "a lady with a funny eye" lodging a complaint over the billboards, or in his attempt to explain to Mildred the makeup of his police force.

Now this good old boy routine goes a bit further here with Harrelson's performance as he needs to establish why everyone seems to love Willoughby, and why does everyone hate Mildred's signs for calling him out by name. Harrelson does so by being quite charming here and delivers the needed charisma to this "great" man. This includes when Willoughby is dealing with his worst man where he brings almost a fatherly manner in his reprimands and his defense of their shortcomings. Harrelson portrays Willoughby as someone willing to listen and ready to look for the good in people whether he should or not. Willoughby even when dealing with the very hostile Mildred delivers these lines particularly well. As he offers a definite sympathy even within the frustrations as he explains his legitimate reasons for his failures to catch the killer, and his disagreement with her use of the billboards. Harrelson reveals Willoughby as this inherently likable mediator who is evidently trying his best even if not given credit for it. On a slightly side note it also must be mentioned that Harrelson is particularly great in the two scenes he has with Willoughby's daughters brings such tremendous heart in every moment of his earnest interactions with them, making Willoughby a genuine and wholly believable great literal father as well.

The real key to Harrelson's work though is his portrayal of the chief dealing with his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis. We are first introduced to this when he brings it up to Mildred in their initial conversation. Harrelson is amazing in this scene as he more overtly reveals Willoughby's vulnerabilities to her and he is particularly affecting in revealing in his eyes just how distraught he is as she initially offers no sympathy in return. This facet of the character is something Harrelson elegantly weaves into his work even when he not directly dealing with it. One of my favorite scenes of Harrelson's is when he checks out the report on the murder near the billboards. Harrelson doesn't say anything about his own upcoming demise, yet his moments of examining the shadow of the sign as though it marks the grave of the victim he conveys the sense of Willoughby quietly seeing his own mortality in the context that he knows he'll never solve the case. Harrelson does not waste the more overt moments though which uses well as the brief times when the man simply cannot hide it anymore, or is forced to not be able to. He's downright heartbreaking when he suddenly spits up blood as Harrelson so honestly apologizes, and reveals the intensity of the very real overwhelming fear of the moment. The same is true in the scene where we see him essential make his final decision when briefly left alone at the hospital. After having just a brief moment of warmth with his wife (Abbie Cornish), where Harrelson once again projects Willoughby's seemingly unshakable charm, when alone his breakdown is incredibly moving as the complete sorrow in his expression reveals a man who knows he has no hope for survival. Harrelson exits the film soon afterwards physically though he has a few more vocal scenes through letters Willoughby left for a select few people. Harrelson delivers these in a pretty straight forward way, as a man proof reading his letters basically, though still these are rather emotional letters so this is not in a hollow sense, it is effectively handled to the point he gets one more laugh out of me even when leaving one last good-natured insult to one of the recipients. The general ideas of the letters though is Willoughby's continued influence on the story despite his departure. Well Harrelson also continues his influence on the film despite his early exit through his hard edged yet heartfelt portrayal of the tragedy of a man out of time yet with still so much left to do. 
Sam Rockwell won his Oscar from his first Oscar nomination for portraying Officer Jason Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Well this brings me to the more complicated part of the review, which would be quite different if say I was reviewing this performance in a few years from now. I could just go about looking at the performance, but unfortunately there is a bit baggage that needs unpacking. The strongest backlash of the film has been built around the character of Jason Dixon. One faction of this criticism is completely ridiculous, those who believe Rockwell should not be rewarded for playing a racist. Well I guess stop everything and re-write every acting award as best performance as a nice character and rescind the Oscars given to Anthony Hopkins, Kathy Bates, Heath Ledger and so many others for playing such despicable sorts. I'll admit that is only one faction though, the second faction requires a bit more effort to broach their criticism. This criticism against the redemptive arc of Jason Dixon as a character despite being a racist. One being it is illogical and impossible. Well that's just not the case, one can look no further than the true story of John Newton who went from slaver to abolitionist, that is frankly a far more extreme conversion than the one you witness in Three Billboards. There's of course more to this, but I'll be touching upon this in the actual review of the performance, and not just the character.

Sam Rockwell to start off takes the right approach to the role of Dixon which is to make to sure to emphasize the sheer stupidity of the character. This is from his opening scene of inspecting the billboards where he questions the men putting up the new signs on the billboards without the candor of someone you would describe as a seasoned detective. Rockwell mumbles the delivery of Dixon attempting to question the men and is rather amusing in his bungled way of attempting to threaten one of the men with arrest for improper bucket disposal. Rockwell's performance purposefully constructs the role from this outset so that we laugh at Dixon never with Dixon. In this scene there is no incisiveness as he asks them but rather we see the sheer idiocy of the man in his attempt to be any sort of cop. We see this continued in Dixon's way of speaking casually offensive language most related to homosexuals and the mentally handicapped, though notably he mostly avoids anything towards African American even attempting to revise Mildred's language, only speaking offensive words in his explanation to stop it, though more on that later. Rockwell's delivery of these words are not as comical jabs, but sloppy ramblings of a fool. He makes them just the words he's probably been saying, and taught by his mother to say as just a second nature. It's not a pretty sight and Rockwell plays it as such.

Rockwell does give a often comedic performance but this is in a very specific fashion. That is Rockwell makes every comical moments related to Dixon being something you laugh at and again never with him. When Dixon is attempting, and failing at his tough cop routine, as realized through Rockwell's approach as this over eager idiot attempting to be far more than he is. He's very funny though when ever he shows Dixon kind of fall out of this act whenever someone mentions his mother. Rockwell's hilarious in his way of slipping in thought and immediately becoming a real mama's boy in his sudden switch to this very petulant manner. Rockwell's great as whenever this happens it is an immediate almost instinctual return seemingly to a school ground dope as he either defends his mother, or awkwardly attempts to say she has less influence on him then they claim. As much as Rockwell excels with the few verbal "spars" that come from Dixon's incompetence the real comedy gold comes in his physical performance. As usually is the case for Rockwell, he's a very energetic and dynamic performer in this sense. He's terrific here in almost being a classical silent buffoon in his depiction of Dixon being a bungler in body as well as mind. This is in the more overt moments such his fearless dancing, which is always a Rockwellian treat, but more importantly in every moment Dixon is trying to be intimidating.

That can be in fairly simple ways just as the way Dixon sits back in his chair is as though he's this "badass" cop, but in fact just looks like a hapless layabout. Two favorite moments of mine is when Mildred comes to confront him, and Rockwell does this attempted dramatic get out of his chair yet get slightly caught up while doing so, or his later moment is when Dixon attempts to find his badge. Rockwell's timing just couldn't be better in making Dixon such a fool. Every one of Rockwell's little physical pratfalls is a delight that thankfully seems spring of the moment, even though they probably were not, and again is so good at reinforcing the sheer idiocy of the character that we are meant to laugh at. Of course this isn't just an entertaining look at a incompetent bully. There is that arc of the character that has become such a point of controversy in the film, making Dixon perhaps the most controversial character in any film in 2017. I stand by the idea of the reformed racist is in reality possible, but I also think what Rockwell does in the role contributes to making it feasible within the context of the film and character. The point of contention that probably most damns Dixon is the accusation that Dixon tortured an African American suspect in prison. We never learn the truth of this matter in the film, in fact Rockwell portrays the moments where this is brought as an desperate defensiveness. A defensiveness that seems ill-fitting to a truly unabashed racist, who would more likely be smugly prideful over their accomplishment, Rockwell's approach once again suggests maybe the charge is not wholly true or at least not so simple.

Of course there is evidence against old Dixon when we do see him beat a couple of people, the two whitest people in the film the main one is even called Red (Caleb Landry Jones), but that's not the point. It is important though to remember the context of the sequence. Red, the man the beatings is aimed at, is the person Dixon has been pressuring specifically due to his allowance of the billboards that Rockwell has always emphasized his distaste most strongly within the use of Willoughby's name. When Willoughby exits it is important to note Rockwell's portrayal of a complete breakdown and grief at the loss of the chief he clearly so respected. The sequence of Dixon going about beating Red, Rockwell portrays as a man with a mind set towards some act of revenge for the chief, but not a lick of intelligence within the act. Now even with having said that Dixon is not a good person, and Rockwell portrays him as such. The question though comes into the transformation of the character, which actually begins right after the beating Red scene. Rockwell reveals a real sheepishness when called upon his actions by being immediately being fired and his reaction is as though Dixon thought he was going to be thanked for "avenging" Willoughby. Dixon is instead fired leading to an important scene for Rockwell's performance. That is as his mother goes on like usual, Rockwell portrays Dixon finally with any introspection for his actions. Rockwell shows that obviously he isn't instantly changed, but is finally focusing on some of his mistakes. There's a specific modicum of shame that Rockwell finds when his mother suggests with racist mindset to get rid of the new chief who is black. His reaction infers a sense that Dixon is finally at least starting to see what his mother's words have gotten him, not that he's suddenly some progressive hero. Rockwell instead in these few scenes just reveals a pathetic man without anything really left except for his self-loathing as he seems to realize he's done wrong.

Rockwell already establishes that before Dixon gets his own letter from Willoughby that encourages him to try change his ways and solve the murder case. He is immediately greeted to a wall fire, created by Mildred via Molotov cocktails to burn the station not to hurt Dixon, leading to his first set of injuries. Dixon's first real act of change comes in the hospital where the equally injured Red comes to see if the bandaged Dixon is okay. Rockwell delivers Dixon's initial apology as just naturalistic swell of emotion as a reaction towards someone giving him sympathy despite his brutality towards them. Dixon after these scenes still doesn't become some super man in fact Rockwell shows a man drowning in his sorrows of the sorry state of his life when he's in the bar who just happens to come across as man bragging about a vicious rape. The idea of Dixon doing what the man he respected so much asked him to do is made believable. Again Rockwell doesn't make him suddenly this virtuous saint, but rather a pretty pitiful man just trying to do one thing. Rockwell is outstanding in his scene of presenting the evidence he received to Mildred. Rockwell revealing of a slightly changed man is of this timid sort with his delivering emphasizing his awkwardness of a man just trying to do what he believes is the right thing. Rockwell makes even this is still a sad state as Dixon is clearly still mostly a screw up. There is one great moment where Dixon attempts to speak some wisdom about learning things, and for a moment seems to go back to his casually offensive remarks almost by instinct. Rockwell is great in his reaction as he shows Dixon after that line just one again recognizing his past again as he holds his head in shame. Rockwell doesn't portray Dixon as finding new life as a hero, but just doing one thing his old boss asked him to do. Rockwell even in his near final sign reveals just a man in near suicidal state clearly overcome by his past, hardly as this new reformed sort, but rather a man just finally aware of the many mistakes of his life.  This is an fantastic performance by Sam Rockwell. One gets some classic Rockwellian moments, which are always nice, and he adjusts them to this character, but really what is most remarkable is his successful realization of Dixon's arc. An arc that is not of a bad man to a good man, but a bad man who is slowly realizing he's done wrong.

26 comments:

Calvin Law said...

Well I actually just re-watched this today as well (with a friend who didn't know it was a McDonagh film and was pleasantly surprised). Agree with your points entirely, though I would say I thought it was less ambiguous whether or not he'd tortured people in the past, but I agree he shows genuine regret and is troubled by having done those things. Also so glad you brought up that one scene Willoughby, sitting on the hospital bed, ruminates over what he's going to do. One of his best acting moments I'd say.

Any rating changes?

Giuseppe Fadda said...

Ratings and thoughts on the cast of Beatriz at Dinner and the film itself? I thought the film had its problems (namely the ending), but I thought it was pretty effective on the whole and Hayek is fantastic.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

Well Willoughby also says there's no "hard evidence" to support that referring to it as though it was single incident that was being speculated on. So I would say it was still fairly ambiguous on that point.

Hedges down to a 2.5, some of his line readings are pretty terrible.

Jones and Peters up to 4's.

McDormand is easily my win now for reasons I did not realize the first time I watched the film. Those being that she actually plays every "badass" moment of Mildred's with really two sides to them. One being she is lashing out, but the others that is to hide her own vulnerabilities regarding her own guilt. For example watch the scene with the priest, when he initially says everyone is with her, McDormand is about to breakdown until she instead goes on her tirade, suggesting that Mildred is trying to make herself feel better and even believe she this crusader for justice to ease her own guilt and sadness by unleashing her hate.

Calvin Law said...

Hm I personally found most of Hedge's line deliveries good besides 'It was a gag', but I can see why you've bumped him down. Glad about Peters, did you notice the slight indications of sympathy and pity towards Rockwell in his initial scene along with his acerbic airs?

Calvin Law said...

And guess we'll agree to disagree on the torturing incident though we agree on the quality of that subplot.

Psifonian said...

Here's what I wrote after I saw the film a few months back:

I don't think it's as perfectly calibrated as In Bruges is . . . but then again, very few scripts are. That film should be taught in screenwriting classes. More than any other film he's made, Three Billboards evokes McDonagh's stage heritage more readily. There are moments scattered throughout the film (the interludes with Willoughby's letters, the interloper in the shop, the soliloquy with the deer) that I can see play out on-stage perfectly, but which feel a bit off in the cinematic sense. Not that they're stagey, but that they're trappings more appropriate for a play than a film. But that does not undermine the story's quality at all, because McDonagh makes a strong case for being the best working playwright in the world right now, and the man has a knack for writing characters that, on paper, can be annoying or unlikeable and makes them fascinating.

McDormand is as forceful a presence as any other performance this decade, and if anyone needed a reminder that she is one of the very best actresses alive, watch this and Fargo and see how both performances complement each other and yet are antithetical. Where Marge Gunderson is warm and good-natured, Mildred Hayes is a crabbed, bitter soul tormented by guilt and rage. McDormand doesn't move through the film, she stalks through it like an aged lioness in a well-hunted savanna.

As for the accusations in regards to the film being racist or that McDonagh should be shamed for trying to bring some modicum of decency to Dixon, I think they are nothing but trigger-happy complaints. Three Billboards is a flawed movie, but it is not a racist one. Its biggest issue is that it tries to paint too broad a brush across a spectrum of hot-button issues (police brutality, racial intolerance, small-town ignorance, violence towards women), and unfortunately it becomes a bit unwieldy and unfocused at times. But no, it is not racist, and a lot of people who complain that the film wants us to think that Dixon is redeemed at the end are missing the point of his character entirely. He is not redeemed. He shows a moment of clarity, and he seeks some modicum of atonement, but he is not redeemed. He has taken up a path that could lead him to more unlawful violence, but he is showing remorse and self-doubt, which could put him on the track of being a better person. And Mildred, who is so eaten up with rage and bitterness, begins to soften. The themes that McDonagh tries to explore are all worthy of their own film, but it winds up coming off as overstuffed for a two-hour film.

Even with all of the issues I have with it, on the whole, I thought it was another knockout by one of the eminent dramatists of our age, galvanized by a cast at the top of their game headlined by a woman who could lay claim to being America's best actress with little argument from me.

P.S.: I don't know if anyone has remarked on this, but both the McDonagh brothers seem to be big fans of classic Westerns like High Noon and Bad Day at Black Rock, because both this and Calvary feel like modern-day entries in the genre, just with a change of scenery. Ford and Sturges would be proud.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I'll go 5s for Franco, Pattinson & Jane and 4.5s for Coster-Waldau, McAvoy, Cruise, Carell x2 and Fishburne.

Calvin Law said...

Psifonian: I've never noticed it before but yes, Calvary and High Noon are eerily similar.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: I really hope Pattinson gets a 5, he's made it into my top 5. Agree with those ratings for the 4.5's.

Michael McCarthy said...

God I want to watch this again. Is there any chance of Three Billboards going up in your rankings?

Also I agree about Hedges being one of the weaker elements of the film, but man do I love the majority of the performances. I'm surprised you didn't get into more detail about Rockwell's performance as Dixon reads the letter and sees the fire, that was one of my favorite parts.

I think Franco's a 5 for sure, and Pattinson is likely. I'm not really sure what people are seeing in Thomas Jane though.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your 1970's cast with Winters as Mildred and Oates as Dixon.

Luke Higham said...

Michael: What rating would you give him, I haven't seen 1922 in full yet.

Michael McCarthy said...

3.5/4. He serves the role well and has some quite strong moments, but the film itself never quite grabbed me.

Luke Higham said...

Michael: Well that kinda sucks, was actually looking forward to that review.

Calvin Law said...

Never doubt the Psifonian/Louis Morgan connection.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I don't know, Michael's opinions usually aren't far off from Louis' either, Psifonian has chosen some really great performances in the past like Reilly in Walk Hard for example but we'll see.

Michael McCarthy said...

I'm not saying it's objectively unimpressive, I'm just saying that whatever other people loved about Jane and the film just didn't click for me.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Love both of these performances.
Louis: Your updated top 5 performances for Rockwell and Harrelson.

Robert MacFarlane said...

They’re... fine, I guess. Literally no one on Earth could have ever made me buy Dixon on any level, so I don’t fault Rockwell or any of his acting choices. Harrelson fares better, but I HATED his line readings of the letters he left behind. I’m going to keep my mouth shut for now on why I think the film is reprehensible.

houndtang said...

What did you think of Cornish? I thought she wasnt exactly bad but was strange casting. At first I thought she was playing his daughter, and her accent was distracting.

Bryan L said...

Louis: Great review as always, especially for Rockwell.

Anyways can I have your, uh, thoughts on Jim Carrey as an actor? And some past film roles he'd be great in.

RatedRStar said...

I just love to sit and think...Sam Rockwell... Oscar nominee, finally =D prove that the Oscars do get it right on occasion, definitely the best performance Harrelson has ever given in a film also.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Did you see any other 2017 films recently.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on Gregory Peck, John Barrymore and Paul Muni as actors.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

Yes though in kind of "I don't think this boy is right in the head sort of way".

Michael:

No, but it is very secure in its spot, and I want it all the more to win the big prize since it doesn't seem like Dunkirk or Phantom Thread are going to do it.

Anonymous:

Mildred: Shelley Winters
Dixon: Warren Oates
Willoughby: Ben Johnson
Charlie: Jack Palance
James: Michael Dunn
Red: Brad Dourif
Robbie: Ron Howard
Anne: Carroll Baker
Connoly: Keenan Wynn
Momma Dixon: Patsy Kelly
Ambercrombie: Woody Strode

Tahmeed:

Rockwell:

1. Three Billboards
2. Moon
3. Galaxy Quest
4. The Assassination of Jesse James
5. Seven Psychopaths

Harrelson:

1. True Detective
2. Three Billboards
3. Rampart
4. Seven Psychopaths
5. The Edge of Seventeen

hountang:

Watching the film again I thought she was certainly bad in her scene with McDormand. The rest of the time I think she was just wildly miscast more than anything. One her age, two her accent, which she could've fixed, since it seemed odd since nothing about the character suggested that she wasn't a local.

Bryan:

Carrey is an interesting case in that like Jack Lemmon I'd say he's actually better at his dramatic roles despite being known best as a comedian. Now as a comedian Carrey certainly gives it his all and has an energy and literal elasticity like few others. This sometimes works for me sometimes it doesn't, but you have to give the guy always credit for trying. His dramatic work in The Man on the Moon, yes it's really mostly dramatic, and Eternal Sunshine have shown a considerable range a dynamic emotional power to his performances. Carrey has a whole lot in him and whenever he can pull out in the right way it is something remarkable, I mean this can even be found in his mostly comedic work in Dumb and Dumber. Carrey is an unwieldy performer to be sure though and with that comes inconsistency. When he channels himself properly though it can be something truly special. Unfortunately these days it seems as though he's lost his mind to fame, which is a shame.

C.C. Baxter
The Devil, Devil and Daniel Webster
The D'Ascoynes

RatedRStar:

It's important to remember that.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

Gregory Peck is an actor that slowly got better as he got older the more he acted. A lot of his early work isn't great. He had a certain screen presence and could be charming however much of his character driven work was severely underwhelming. The more he acted the more he seemed to learn actually as his work in the 60's is notably stronger than any of his work that came before. His performance in To Kill a Mockingbird stands as a great performance that any actor would want on their resume. He seemed to become more aware of his limits and where he could work with his range as an actor later on. As after a certain point he just started giving consistently solid turns unlike his rather uneven work at the start of his career. I wouldn't quite say he ever became a great actor, but he did become a good one with a great performance under his belt.

John Barrymore is interesting in that his career was really cut far too short for him to make the impact he probably would've made on cinema as he did in theater. Barrymore, unlike many of his contemporaries, seemed to understand film and his performance are rather astute in working with the camera. One can say he could lean towards hammy occasional, however even in this way it was always to serve his attempt as some sort of dynamic performance. He was known for his great stage prescnece and it translated to great screen presence. I will say though it seems we only got the tip of the iceberg with his cinematic career as it seemed like he could have gone anywhere in the years just before his death when sound films began to find their path, but sadly that was cut short. Barrymore still made his mark on screen though even in that short time in a series of cinematic striking turns in a time when so many performances were bland and boring.

Paul Muni has a strange career in that in his first years there was great intensity and subtly, especially for the period, in his work. He seemed to try to evoke reality like few actors, but the more his career went on the bigger he started to go to the point he went full ham in almost every one of his performances. I will say that Muni's talent was still evident even in these performances. It sometimes was hard to see however for the time he was still notable for the risks he took and his attempts to go for these incredible heights with his chameleon performance. Unfortunately they rarely worked out as he would just resort to overblown tricks of the trade, and become a steam fried ham most of the time. It's a shame as his early work showed a much strong performer, and really the potential never went away. He would sometimes still deliver a great scene if he just seemed to calm down for a moment.