American Lies, Pathologies in “Three Billboards” and “Last Flag Flying”

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, in "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Frances McDormand and Bryan Cranston are American treasures.  McDormand will be forever linked with Sheriff Marge Gunderson of Fargo, but has delivered splendid performances in other films like Moonrise Kingdom and Burn After Reading.  Cranston unforgettably brought Walter White to life, the king of meth and self-justification at the heart of Breaking Bad.

So it’s a treat to see both of them in new films of high caliber.  In Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand is Mildred Hayes, a mother living with unspeakable grief.  Seven months earlier, her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered, crimes for which no perpetrator has been discovered.

Perceiving inertia in the local police force, Hayes purchases a year’s worth of advertising on the film’s eponymous billboards.  In big letters against a stark red background, she shames Ebbing’s police chief in particular for his failure to bring Angela’s killer to justice.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand, in "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand, in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Playing Chief Willoughby is the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson, his character a walking illustration of the cliché that evil is what happens when good people do nothing.  A decent family man, his sluggish police force nonetheless shelters the dimwitted cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), notorious for once torturing a black suspect.

Besides these three key roles, Three Billboards is blessed with a superb supporting cast that includes Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters, and Lucas Hedges.  But McDormand’s Mildred is the powerhouse here.  Hardly a blemish-free character, she neglects her depressed surviving child in her single-minded pursuit of justice.  A survivor of an abusive marriage, Mildred herself doesn’t shy away from verbal and physical aggression in her mission.  She embodies the fine line dividing perseverance from madness.

With its story, Three Billboards flirts with pigeonholing into the mystery or revenge flick genres.  But writer/director Martin McDonagh (creator of the deliciously watchable In Bruges) transcends categorization with his latest.

Instead, he aims higher, deflating the tempting lie of corrective violence, while setting his sights on the power structures that poison society.  Ebbing, standing in for America at large, is awash in misogyny and racism.  Rather than focusing energy on treating these pathologies, Ebbing’s police force, clergy, and upstanding citizens displace their outrage onto Mildred, who refuses to be a good little woman and shut up.

Three Billboards is consistently engrossing, its plot taking a few turns that astonished me.  McDonagh’s script abounds with clever dialogue, with many moments of dark humor and occasional applause-worthy comeuppances.

The flaw keeping it from greatness is the redemptive arc of one of its key characters.  If America 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that people don’t instantly awaken from racist, sexist attitudes.  (Have you seen many converts from Trumpism lately?)  So, while I understand the temptation to write such a trajectory, it still rings false.

Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, in "Last Flag Flying"
Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, in “Last Flag Flying”

The other film under consideration this week, Last Flag Flying, suffers from no such inauthenticity and is the better film for it.  The best work by its director, Richard Linklater, has dealt with how people, their relationships, and their perspectives change (or don’t change) over time.  Boyhood and his Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy reward close watching and listening for this reason.

Last Flag Flying tells the story of three Vietnam veterans and their first re-encounter since the war.  Set in 2003, former medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) has just learned that his son Larry was killed in Baghdad.  Travelling from New Hampshire to Virginia, he recruits former platoon buddies Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) for moral support during the journey to retrieve and bury his child.

Doc initially plans to have his son interred with honors at Arlington.  But on arriving at Dover Air Force Base, the trio meets Larry’s best friend, who reluctantly divulges that the military’s tale of heroic death is a fabrication.  Angry over this deception, Doc decides on the spot to transport his son’s body to New Hampshire for a civilian burial at the family plot.

Last Flag Flying’s narrative movingly combines sound psychological insights with keen social observation.  Each of the three leads are an interesting study in personalities across decades.  Each of them (like at least a quarter of their fellow Nam vets) abused drugs in the field to self-medicate their distress.  Doc did time in the brig for it, but went on to marry happily while plugging away at a mindless job.  Sal was a career Marine and career alcoholic who now owns a bar.  Richard found Jesus and preaches at a small church, aiming to repress his past.

Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne successfully immerse themselves in their parts, enough that I forgot I was watching actors and believed in their characters.  Though Carell got top billing – and proves as he did in Foxcatcher that he has the flexibility to excel in both comedic and dramatic roles – Cranston steals the show.  His Sal is the exuberant, good-hearted type of fellow who will alternately make you laugh then chafe at his mischief and unfiltered verbiage.

I suspect some Christians will critique Fishburne’s Reverend Mueller as one-dimensional, given his ready retreat into vacuous spiritual platitudes.  But residing in the Bible Belt has shown me that there are plenty of believers for whom Christianese is reflexively deployed as a defense mechanism against life’s sharper edges.

The trio’s voyage gives ample opportunity for conversation about their military experiences, and how a war’s location may change, but the lies stay the same.  Dehumanization of the enemy is inevitable, whether it’s killing “gooks” in Vietnam or “hajis” in Iraq.  Fictions about protecting American soil are recycled:  Doc, Sal, and Richard fought to keep Communists from making a beachhead in Malibu; Larry died so Saddam wouldn’t detonate a nuke in D.C.

The source material for Last Flag Flying has an interesting pedigree.  The novel on which it’s based was written by Darryl Ponicsan as a sequel to The Last Detail.  The latter book was adapted by Hal Ashby into a 1973 film starring Randy Quaid, Jack Nicholson, and Otis Young.  Ashby, a major counterculture figure in 1970s Hollywood, is better known for Shampoo, Coming Home, and the classic Harold and Maude. 

In adapting his novel and co-writing the script for Last Flag Flying, Ponicsan (along with Linklater) has made a moral rather than literal sequel to The Last Detail.  The characters in both films are similar but not identical.  But one thing that hasn’t changed is each director’s revulsion at American militarism.

In Last Flag Flying, Sal empathizes with Doc’s bottomless grief, but questions the legitimacy of the cause his son died for.  With good reason, Sal doubts that President Bush would’ve willingly sent his twin daughters into harm’s way.

And wouldn’t that make a fine criterion for entering into war?  If our leaders won’t send their children to fight, then peaceful diplomacy ought to be the order of the day.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Last Flag Flying:  4 out of 5 stars   

 

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