Notes on The Last Jedi, Godless, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Though not in that order, because spoilers.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

–I did not like this film. I admired its craftsmanship, not least the acting, the unwieldy plot, the attempted control at something like permanent tonal dissonance (which is, I suppose, a backhanded way of saying I thought the tone was out of control), the thematic complex animating the film's every turn. I generally admire and enjoy the work of both the writer-director Martin McDonagh and his brother. But not this one.

–Eve Tushnet captures a great deal of what's wrong with the film here. These two paragraphs sum it up:
Or take the reason for Mildred Hayes’s furious grief. She feels guilty about her daughter’s horrifying death–of course she does, that’s how anyone would feel. But the film doesn’t trust us to accept that anybody would feel that way. The movie has her feel guilty because she literally, exactly in these words told her daughter to go walk in that field and get raped and murdered, and then she did!!!!!, and it’s just all so on-the-nose and unnecessary. It’s chintzy.
The huge, sad and sordid problem with the movie is that racism and black people are ciphers in an alphabet used to talk solely about the sins and redemptions of white people. Racism is a theme the movie insists on grappling with but it just cannot do it well, because the black characters aren’t people. They are plot furniture who might as well blink out of existence as soon as they’ve performed their role in the moral drama of the white folk.
The film simply does not trust its audience, nor does it trust the would-be ordinary griefs and grievances the film is ostensibly about. Everything is turned up to eleven: Mildred doesn't just set up outlandish billboards, she throws Molotov cocktails at the police station; the dumb racist violent cop isn't just dumb and racist and violent, he marches into an office building, walks up to the second floor, beats up a man, and throws him out of a window (all filmed in one take, thus doubling down on the scene's histrionics with fussy cinematic virtuosity); and so on.

–Tushnet also touches on the wild tonal swings that, while perhaps not doomed to failure, certainly fail here. One moment Mildred's talking to her ex-husband, busting balls; the next he's throwing the kitchen table against the wall and grabbing her by the throat, their son holding a knife to his own father's throat—only for the ex-husband's dim-witted half-his-age girlfriend to walk in the doorway and drain the tension because she has to pee. It's as if a Judd Apatow comedy interrupted a Scorsese film.

–The first act is mostly good, but everything falls to pieces the moment Woody Harrelson's cancer-stricken sheriff kills himself. Not only are his final words to his wife (in his suicide note) execrably romanticized, but all of a sudden the jolly, ever-recognizable voice of Beloved Actor Woody Harrelson becomes the Ghost of Christmas Future for the characters left behind. Mildred and said dumb racist violent cop receive posthumous letters from the sheriff-turned-seer, poring into their souls and speaking, as only Beloved Actor Woody Harrelson's voice could, their future best selves into being, guiding them from beyond the grave. Having lovingly, generously, self-sacrificially "saved" his wife and daughters untold grief at "having to watch him" suffer and die, and thus be "left" with "that lasting image" of him—instead of the "one final perfect day" they do have—he now transforms himself into a truly selfless saint. Light a votive candle while you're at it, Mildred.

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Godless

–Scott Frank is one of the best living writers in Hollywood, and anything that gives him work is cause for celebration. Doubly so when it's a long-gestating limited series Western for Netflix.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Frank said he didn't want to avoid the classic tropes of the great Westerns; he wanted to include every single one, and then some. Amen. As with all genre, the way to go is either radically revisionary (a la Tarantino) or pure specimen with a twist. Anything in between usually falters; and more to the point, you have to show you can master (or have mastered) the genre's necessary features in order to succeed at all, and few directors are so accomplished as to be able to go the Tarantino route. Frank chose wisely.

–The series centers on a town of women, widows who one and all lost their husbands in a single tragic mining accident. A stranger comes to town, adopted son and deserter of a viciously violent leader of a criminal gang. As the vengeful Bad seeks vengeance, we learn about the stranger, the woman who took him in, the town's inhabitants, and its supposedly cowardly sheriff.

–The series is gorgeously shot, lush with all the Western geography you could ask for, and shots of men riding horses with such skill and beauty you convince yourself God made one for the other, and both to be captured in moving pictures. The actors are uniformly superb, particularly Michelle Dockery (of Downton Abbey fame), Scoot McNairy (from Halt and Catch Fire, among other things), and Jeff Daniels (simply reveling in a truly wicked part without ever crossing the line into Hamville). Frank takes his time with the characters and with the moments that make them who they are, or who they become. The details and the dialogue are lived-in and witty without ever calling attention to themselves.

–Two problems keep the series from making good on its promise. The first is pacing: stretched across seven episodes of varying length, one can easily imagine the two and a half hour movie version of this story. At least two episodes (five and six) are pure filler, and other side plots could be scratched without loss. Such a problem is permissible if everything else works. Unfortunately...

–The finale simply does not deliver. The climactic shootout does deliver, as a piece of sheer filmmaking. But as climax to the narrative, it's a flop. Minus two minor characters who meet their doom quickly and without fanfare (one halfway through the series), no major character loses his or her life. Perhaps acceptable, if not for a serious issue at the script level: namely, the slaughter of Blackdom. You see, outside La Belle (the town of all women) there is an all-black settlement, founded by buffalo soldiers and their families. In the series finale, these characters—mostly a detour from the main plot lines—confer with one another about whether or not to help the all-white town. This is the first the camera has visited these characters without a white character standing in for the audience. Only moments later, however, Jeff Daniels comes a-knocking, and three minutes later every man, woman, and child in Blackdom is dead.

If Frank had committed to this kind of atrocity culminating his story—just one more feature of the impartial, unconquerable godlessness of the Western frontier—this decision could have been justified. Instead, more or less every white character gets to live on, kept safe (by Frank or by God?) from the hateful, meaningless death and destruction meted out just one town over. It is a profound misstep that undoes whatever good will the series has built up to this point, and undermines whatever Frank was hoping to say. Happy endings for the (white) leads, an unmarked grave for the rest.

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The Last Jedi

–I am fascinated by what appears to be a wide divide in reactions to Rian Johnson's film. A number of critics as well as SW fans downright love it, hailing it as one of the best SW films ever, rivaling the 1977 original and Empire in quality, depth, and craft. Those who disagree aren't merely in the middle, however; they actively dislike the movie and think it largely fails. What's going on here?

–First, my own take: I think TLJ is a rousing success, marred only by a minor side plot (the trip to Canto Bight), which ends with a silly CGI scene and makes the pacing of the film's second act sag unnecessarily. A few other nits to pick, sure, but otherwise, the film is great. Everything with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke is A+. (Agreeing, as more than one person has, then commenting that everything else is a problem is a bit like saying Lord of the Rings is a failure except for all the scenes with Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. Because, um, aren't they in most of them?) And there are at least three moments that took my breath away: the throne room, the lightspeed kamikaze, and the showdown between Luke and Ren. More on the good anon.

–Here's my take on the divide I'm seeing so far. Those praising the film up and down and those disappointed by it appear to be talking about different things. That is, nobody's arguing opposing sides of the same topic; it's all about what one was looking for, what one was struck by, and thus what one holds up for emphasis, as emblematic of the film's quality. Those who love TLJ are talking about Rey, Ren, and Luke; about Johnson's direction; about composition and color; about the film's core themes; about the departures from previous SW entries; about off-loading detritus from Abrams; about upending (even taunting) fanboys' expectations; about where the film leaves the story and its characters. Those left dissatisfied by TLJ aren't talking about any of that. They're talking about the silliness of Canto Bight; about the narrative dead-end of DJ and the covert mission of Finn and Rose; about the odd fit of Laura Dern's character and the half-baked nature of Poe's mutiny; about Leia's Force moment in space; about the premature deaths of Snoke and Phasma; about the further echoes and rhyming repetitions of past SW films; about Luke never leaving his Jedi island of loneliness, never unleashing some serious Force destruction on the First Order.

Note well: The lovers' love has a great deal to do with formal qualities and decisions, combined with the main characters' arcs. The haters' hate concerns specific matters of content, especially plot, especially relative to The Force Awakens. So I suppose this rift is going to continue. The haters aren't going to come around (they already grant the goodness of the Rey-Ren-Luke stuff), and the lovers just aren't worried about some of those plot matters, or think focusing on them is disproportionate to what the film does well.

–Another way to look at it: I think TLJ is a three-star film with two or three bona fide four-star moments and one or two two-star moments, whereas TFA is a three-star film that basically never rises above or sinks below that quality (minus the overall fact that Starkiller Base is an indefensible redux of IV and VI). And it's true that TLJ never quite has an extended sequence like the first act of TFA, which not only never stops moving, but may be the most well-paced, flawless 45 minutes in all nine SW movies. And there's no through-line like Harrison Ford's farewell Han Solo performance or Ridley and Boyega's banter (though the connection between Ridley and Driver in TLJ runs deeper, and is more interesting).

All that to say: I can understand having a preference for TFA over TLJ (leaving aside the original trilogy!); but that's simply comparing different movies with different agendas, different sensibilities, different stories, and different goals.

–So why am I, a TLJ defender, unconcerned about the haters' criticisms? Here's a preliminary response. The running of the CGI alien-bulls on Canto Bight is prequel-worthy nonsense, even cringe-worthy. Granted. But the trip itself is an interesting idea on a number of fronts, so the mere presence of a dumb 5-minute chase scene doesn't torpedo a 150-minute movie. First, the initial reason to go to the planet is to find a way to disable the First Order's ability to track the Resistance's fleet. Second, it provides something the SW series rarely offers: a fleeting glimpse into how the various machinations of the super-spaceships and military maneuvers and Jedi duels actually relate to ordinary planets and their inhabitants—or rather, how ordinary places and people perceive and are affected by this apparently unending galactic civil war. That's a narrative idea worth chasing. Third, the fact that the casino trip fails to result in what Finn, Rose, and Poe dream up for it does not make the whole thing a waste of time; that failure is one in a whole string of failures that mark the film from start to finish. Johnson has constructed TLJ as a kind of Dunkirk in Space: even star wars are less about heroism and triumph than sheer survival, against all odds. Live to fight another day, because maybe that day will be the day you don't get smashed to pieces by the bad guys.

So while Johnson should have rewritten what happens on Canto Bight—make it a heist, make it sleek and fun, make it devoid of all CGI—the trip itself, before and after, is perfectly warranted, and integral to the film's plot and themes.

–Otherwise, I'm basically unperturbed by TLJ's other flaws, real or perceived. Committing to Luke's near despair and total withdrawal (from the war, from those he loves, from responsibility, from the Force) is a brave narrative choice, and it succeeds. The same goes for leaving ambiguous just what happened between Luke and Ren that night when Ren tore down the temple. Relegating Maz to a cameo, making Hux a pitiable joke, and killing off Phasma is altogether shrewd storytelling revisionism, extended canonical universe and fanboys' imaginations be damned. The centerpiece of the film—the throne room scene—is pitch perfect, and killing Snoke before we learned anything about him is the point. He was just another Palpatine (and did we, in 1983, know anything about him, either?), and in shocking the audience through both killing him before IX and uniting Ren and Rey in battle, however briefly, Johnson unwrote Abrams's overweening nostalgia and freed him to finally tell a genuinely new story in the conclusion to this third trilogy. Whatever we might have "learned" about Snoke—whatever time we spent with him—would have been underwhelming and, ultimately, boring; leaving the First Order in (now) Supreme Leader Kylo Ren's hands is brilliant, bold, and wide open, narratively speaking. So much so that I can't believe Kathleen Kennedy let Johnson get away with it.

The rest is noise. And it's in Abrams's hands now, anyway. That's either very good news or very concerning. We'll see in 2019. Until then.

Coda:

 –One thing this experience, and the rift in TLJ's reception, has taught me is how difficult it is to assess a film this highly anticipated and this culturally significant based on a single viewing. I often have trouble with this: the first time I saw—to limit myself to big serial blockbusters—Skyfall, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Dark Knight Rises, and others, all I could register was the problems, real or imagined, with each film's script. It was only on a second or third viewing that I was actually capable of taking the film in, as a film. I'm already eager to go back and have this experience with TLJ.

–I see that there are some who feel like TLJ is basically a combination of Empire and ROTJ. I suppose this is true in a way; but I wonder how such folks feel about TFA, which at times is like a note-for-note remake of IV. In a sense, Johnson played the hand that was dealt him: if what Abrams wanted was to retell the original trilogy with new characters, Johnson sped up the process, so at least IX could be freed from all such expectations. I also happen to think TLJ is neither redundant nor predictable, but your mileage may vary.

–As for whether or not TLJ lets themes and messaging overtake the priority of story—so that, e.g., the film's gender politics become flashing neon lights instead of plot-integrated subtext—I'll just say that (first-time viewing syndrome again) I didn't even catch on to the fact that so many scenes played out between an individual man and woman, the former stubborn with pride, the latter drawing (or arguing, or fighting) said man into the good, the right, the undespairing future. I'll have to see how it plays in the second viewing. But precisely because I didn't see those flashing lights the first time, and since I don't recall a moment when the movie turns preachy, I doubt I'm going to think this is a problem, either.

Comments

  1. It's Ren's motto of freeing ourselves from the past, but orienting in Rose's direction of protecting/saving rather than conquering/destroying, and I agree the casino detour was perfect to set up the external consequences of this conflict that seems inevitable and heroic from the inside.

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    1. What's the "it's" there—the messaging? Did you feel it was heavy-handed? Or just that someone does come out and articulate it?

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  2. I didn't mind the tonal shifts in Three Billboards quite so much; it's part of the gonzo darkly comic Irish thing, which McDonagh was right to think might translate to a Southern gothic/Flannery O'Connor setting. Not that he translated it perfectly. Even so, all the film's little sins could have been forgiven if it hadn't fallen quite so hard for the Woody Harrelson character, as you say -- what it really needed was for the sheriff's easy-going approach and the mother's hard-charging approach to be contrasted in a way that showed them both to be problematic. E.g. more (besides that one scene) to suggest that the suicide was a kind of cowardice and not an act of generosity; something that more explicitly connected the weird priest scene to the sheriff's complicity in racial matters (taking seriously the fact that his don't-get-angry approach ends up sanctioning and perpetuating serious injustice); etc. The elements are there, but it needs about 10 minutes of re-shoots to really work thematically.

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    1. I like that alternative portrayal of the sheriff. Maybe it *would* have covered up for the rest of the film's sins. But with it still there...

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  3. Brad,

    What I seem to be seeing a lot of is a sort of interpretation that says something like, "Johnson intentionally subverted Abrams' narrative mysteries (specifically, Snoke's background and Rey's parents), and now every iron Abrams had in the fire is gone."

    I won't assume to what extent you're saying this or not saying it, but I feel that I see at least traces of it in your reflections. Whatever your interpretation may be, I find it hard to believe that Abrams was just as unprepared as the rest of us for the outcome of those two primary mysteries left over from TFA. It seems unlikely that Disney would allow their writers and directors to work completely independently of one another.

    Could it be that subverting those mysteries was the plan all along? Surely that's not outside the realm of possibilities for JJ Abrams.

    Just curious if you have any thoughts on this. Thanks!

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    1. I doubt it was the plan all along, but I do agree that this wasn't an instance of keeping Abrams in the dark and messing up his plans. I imagine Abrams simply wanted to set the table and let others figure out where the pieces would go.

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  4. The slaughter of Blackdom felt very strange to me as well in Godless, but what bothered me most was the laziness regarding female characters. The script felt like it checked off feminist marks (they're not prudish pioneers--they're lesbian and sexually uninhibited women) while not actually creating female characters of depth. I don't consider myself a feminist, but I was annoyed at how Michelle Dockery's character was literally passed from man to man throughout the story and backstory. For a character who is supposed to be strong, she doesn't make many decisions or play much of an active role in the story. Godless would've been better, i think, had it focused more on the tension between the two leading male characters, or dug deeper into the tensions and power politics of the town, or Widow Fletcher's character, but instead it glanced over all of those issues and left the story incomplete. Which is obnoxious, considering how many hours of the plot plodded along.

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    1. This is all good. Agreed. I'm a sucker for westerns generally, so I gave a pass to a lot of these problems; but you're right on all counts.

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