“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

There are three reasons that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the very best films of the year. 1. Martin McDonagh’s raw direction and script. 2. Frances McDormand’s phenomenal work as a vengeful mother. 3. Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance as a redeemable sociopathic cop.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown rightfully furious over the lack of results in her daughter’s murder investigation. Rather than go after the killer herself, her solution is to advertise Sheriff Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) incompetence through three billboards. The entire town sides with Willoughby and harasses Mildred constantly, including Willoughby’s belligerent alcoholic deputy Dixon (Rockwell). That’s all you need to know about this film’s wonderfully dark premise.

Irish playwright McDonagh (2008’s terrific In Bruges and 2012’s underrated Seven Psychopaths) hasn’t lost steam with his third feature. If anything, he’s matured and more restrained. Three Billboards is just as shocking and foul-mouthed as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but it’s more grounded. This is a film about three broken people who handle a tragedy in morbid fashion.

Mildred is a foul-mouthed force of nature. She isn’t afraid to drill a vindictive dentist’s thumb apart or ridicule a reporter on live TV, but she’s still human. Mildred doesn’t want revenge; she wants closure since she’s haunted by an argument she had with her daughter prior to her murder. McDormand delivers a fantastic multi-layered performance and is my frontrunner for Best Actress.

Willoughby is simply trying to maintain order and do right by Mildred. Not because it’s his job, but he wants to end his career on a noble note. He’s the ego to Mildred’s id and Harrelson is terrific as the ailing sheriff.

Then there’s Dixon. Dixon is a chaotic tornado of destruction who makes Mildred’s life a living hell. Despite his violent tendencies, Dixon is a flawed man who just wants a moment to shine. Dixon acts as the superego to Mildred and Willoughby. Rockwell delivers the best performance of his career and outshines Will Poulter’s evil cop character in Detroit.

McDonagh balances humor with poetic narrative and an attention-grabbing script. There are lines of dialogue that act as hypotheticals, but later become reality. He also has a cynical view of modern America that’s demonstrated in his depiction of the town community and Mildred’s morbid view of the Catholic Church. He’s not entirely wrong, though.

Three Billboards ends on a fittingly unresolved note that could make room for a potential sequel. McDonagh doesn’t strike me as the sequel lover, but I would hope he makes an exception in this case.

Grade: A+

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“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

Like the best psycho thrillers, The Killing of a Sacred Deer has a cautionary message for its viewers. In this case, take responsibility for your actions.

Successful cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) acts as a mentor to a deceased patient’s teenaged son Martin (Barry Keoghan). They seem to get along well as Steven gives Martin expensive presents and invites him over for dinner. The pleasantry is short-lived when Martin reveals he holds Steven responsible for his father’s death. Then things escalate to a nightmarish level when Martin unveils his sinister agenda involving Steven’s family.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer peeked my interest during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With it being a psychological horror film that was both praised and booed, I couldn’t ignore it. If I saw this film in Cannes, I would be on the praising side of the auditorium; The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an allegorical masterpiece.

Writer/director Yorgos Lathimos (last year’s overrated The Lobster) has learned from his past mistakes. In Sacred Deer, Lathimos doesn’t lose focus or his visceral impact. Lathimos makes the film’s 121-minute running time feel like a nightmarish eternity of suffering with his slow pace, long takes, morbid humor, disturbing violence, and moral ambiguity.

There isn’t a single character you can call a good person. Every character is immoral, deranged, cold, sociopathic, nihilistic, and devious. Farrell excels as Steven, selling this ordinary doctor as a two-faced scumbag. I’ll argue Steven is more a villain than Martin since Steven takes no responsibility for his actions and blames everyone for his mistakes. “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can,” is the line that defines Steven.

Keoghan shines as Martin. He seems like a friendly-albeit-awkward kid when he gives Martin’s children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) presents. When Martin monologues what will happen to Bob and Kim if Martin doesn’t make a certain sacrifice, we quickly see that Martin is a young sociopath in the making. “It’s the only thing I can think of that is close to justice,” Martin says self-righteously.

It’s clear that Steven doesn’t want to befriend Martin, but he feels obligated. He also treats Martin kinder than his own son (Steven threatens to feed his son his hair in one scene). Is this because he feels guilty? Martin seems disinterested in harming Steven’s family (Martin doesn’t physically hurt anyone) and also wants Martin to be his stepdad. Would he have given Steven a pass if Steven spent more time with him?

The supporting cast are all convincing as eccentric and creepy characters. Nicole Kidman is excellent as Martin’s cold wife who clearly loves Bob more than Kim. Alicia Silverstone appears in only five minutes of screen time as Martin’s lonely and sexually aggressive mother who’s obsessed with Steven’s hands; she steals this scene from her costars.

Sacred Deer may sound like a familiar psycho thriller, but I assure you it’s not, thanks to Lathimos’ fascination with Greek Mythology and his ambition. The title is a reference to the Iphigenia myth, which tells a similar story of sacrifice and dilemmas.

This isn’t a film for the squeamish; between the film featuring a real-life heart surgery and children bleeding from their eyeballs, it’s made some viewers faint or vomit. For the transgressive film lovers who love Kubrick and avant-garde, this one’s for you.

Grade: A