The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018)

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(Hey, Liam Neeson: if you want to have a career based around films in which you rescue women, maybe don’t go around calling #MeToo a “witch hunt,” you asshole.)

A veritable symphony of failures, The Commuter is so bad, even the end credits are a mess, unable to tell whether “stand-by” should be one word or two hyphenated, or to have any consistency at all between whether direction should be spelled with letters (“Second Assistant Director”) or numbers (“3rd Assistant Director”). Sure, I’m being pedantic, but I think it’s important to acknowledge just how widespread the problems are.

Though the problems are widespread, the film is too shallow for them to demand any in-depth analysis; it simply fails at anything and everything it tries to do. The thrills aren’t thrilling, the jokes aren’t funny, the mystery has no suspense, the special effects aren’t remotely believable, the acting is wooden, the secret baddie is glaringly obvious. The overabundance of CGI in the fight scenes make the whole thing look like a bad video game, whose disorienting speed is made all the more jarring by its contrast with the otherwise exceptionally slow pace.

Certainly the saddest element of The Commuter has to be the pitiful way in which it believes itself to be the action counterpart to I, Daniel Blake. Or at the very least, Money Monster. But how anyone expected the audience to maintain a straight face or feel in any way uplifted by watching Liam Neeson give the finger to an investment banker and deliver the immortal line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs, on behalf of the American middle class: fuck you!” I shall honestly never know.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it attempted an element of nuance by providing Liam Neeson (I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name but, honestly, who cares? It’s Liam Neeson playing Liam Neeson) with an opportunity to do what he does out of a sense of financial desperation – that maybe he’s willing to be a less-than-good-guy, because he was just fired, five years before retirement, with no safety net. However, the film can’t stand the thought of “The American Middle Class” being anything other than spotlessly clean so, within no time at all, the story reverts to the classic “they’ve (probably?) kidnapped Liam Neeson’s wife and child” and then proceeds to have his $25k incentive literally blow away, so he needn’t be saddled with anything other than his classic, unquestionable, Husband-and-Father motivation.

As the film progresses, it becomes ever more clear how little anyone knows what they’re doing, as we are provided with even more long and boring expositions we didn’t need, thickly laid reveals we already knew, and an ending that demeans us all.

Hopefully Neeson’s stupid and ugly comments will have him blacklisted from making films in Hollywood again, but I wouldn’t count on it.

 

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

Okay, let’s do this.

I can’t give Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri a star rating. It exists in a realm of moral ambiguity tantamount to Schrödinger-esque quantum mechanics, as it champions disobedience on part of a citizen against a corrupt and violent police force, whilst doing no more than at best paying lip-service to the people of colour who come most in contact with police violence and at worst trying to salvage the worst offenders for a white perspective.

Three Billboards is, absolutely, exceptionally powerful in places. Repeated use of the phrase “Raped While Dying” sends emotional shockwaves, as it should. But, in a way, it’s also the problem. Mainstream Hollywood “issue films” are exceptionally wont to render questions of social justice and civil rights as wholly affect, no effect. In other words, there is no legitimate material analysis of the situation, which means that, when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) storms over to Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and inquires after the “[n-word]-torturing business,” it is very difficult indeed to believe she would have nearly as much a problem with the cops torturing “[n-words]” if they’d also managed to find her daughter’s killer.

This is largely because the suffering of people of colour at the hands of the police is never more than a (white) talking point, and a passing one at that: we’re told Dixon tortured a Black man pretty horrifically at some point before the film, but we never see him, we never hear his name. It’s nothing but a narrative device to help illustrate a white character. Mildred’s boss, Denise (Amanda Warren) is barely afforded a few “you go, girl”-s to Mildred before she is incarcerated for – you guessed it – possession in order to – guessed it again – get at Mildred. We’ve already had it established that the department holding Denise is in the business of torturing Black people so, will the camera cut to her, to see if she’s okay? No, we don’t know how she’s doing; we’re actually supposed to forget about her, but you bet your bottom dollar Mildred expresses her outrage all around the station. Might have been nice to visit her in jail even once, but we’ve got a one-woman war to wage, I guess.

Interestingly for a film whose plot is catalysed by the rape and murder of a teenage girl, Three Billboards actually takes an exceptionally dim view of all young women. Not one is portrayed as anything other than a ditzy, well-meaning but undeniably stupid girlfriend. Even the flashbacks of Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), show her to be irrationally volatile in such a way that her death is portrayed by implication as a – no matter how unjust – punishment for storming out the house.

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) takes on an effectively messianic role throughout the film: a Good Cop™ who knows all our hearts’ desires, but not who killed Angela, it is he who promulgates Dixon’s supposed rehabilitation, informing him he has “love in [his] heart,” an insight that has escaped everyone else, audience included. Dixon takes it upon himself then to improve his actions, after having been fired for beating and throwing someone out a first floor window into traffic. Not arrested. Fired. He betters his ways through interactions solely with – yep – white people. Dixon’s increased importance as the film goes on shows him to be the avatar for any Trump voter in the seats, and the message Martin McDonagh wishes to convey is clearly one of largely liberal platitudes. “Hurt people hurt people” shouldn’t be such a stunning revelation to all the critics falling over themselves to give Three Billboards 5 stars for its “nuance,” and yet it seems to be its rallying cry. Unlearning oppressive thought and behaviour is acknowledged as uncomfortable, through its insistence on showing graphically the pain Dixon experiences in the second half of the film (in contrast to almost any of the pain experienced by his victims), but it gets so wrapped up in showing the discomfort, it forgets to show any unlearning.

The film had me laughing and tearing up in the grand majority of the right places, it’s nothing at all if not compelling, and the performances are fantastic. I’m especially glad to see the brilliant Caleb Landry Jones slowly climb the ladder, from first seeing him in The Last Exorcism, then Get Out and now to Three Billboards. Frances McDormand’s Best Actress Oscar will be well deserved. The film is, in occasional parts, beautiful, both visually and emotionally. However, there is an inconsistency and two-facednedness which is both ethically and morally suspect that it falls again into what may count either as tone-deafness, or indeed flat-out cynicism, which makes me want to avoid praising it too much at all. Its disquieting ambiguity is what I’m sure may have put Peter Dinklage in the first role I’ve seen him take in years that struck me as – for my perhaps patronising, able-bodied money – demeaning. The moment climaxes are reached, guns are drawn or buildings burned, Three Billboards has shifted out of clumsily handled dramatic thinkpiece territory and into “Martin McDonagh, director of Seven Psychopaths,” Tarantino-lite genre film territory, and the transition is not nearly as smooth as everyone involved clearly thinks it is.

McDormand is a powerhouse, and I’m not saying this would have solved every problem, but imagine if Mildred Hayes had been played by Angela Bassett. Same age, same wonderful talent and ability to combine comedy, aggression and heart, but one can only imagine how much the film would have been improved if the violence and indifference of the police expressed to Black people in the South had been the crux of the story, not anecdotal reference material. If murder that inspires all actions in the film had not been of the Young White Woman, the victim supposed to inspire sympathy, but had been someone as likely to be murdered by the cops as by any criminal. This is why #OscarsSoWhite should have been treated as a blessing for Hollywood – the overrepresentation of whiteness in films isn’t just a travesty of social justice; it stops cinema from being all it could be, too.

Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

Make no mistake about it: Molly’s Game ascribes to a highly recognisable formula. It operates as a spiritual sequel to Miss Sloane, with the real-life footage application of The Big Short, dialogue technique mirroring that of The Social Network, with Spotlight-esque verbal displays of high-octane moral grandstanding. And I only partially mean this as a criticism.

There’s been an increasing renewed trend in the past few years of the “smart movie” genre, a film that allows an audience to feel intelligent for understanding the plot, largely through having characters explain the plot to one another, employing sarcasm as a veil for the genuinely didactic intention of a significant portion of the dialogue. Perhaps I’m going soft in my old age, but the cynicism with which I would have once met this phenomenon just isn’t there – this may at least partially be thanks to the power of Jessica Chastain’s performance, which alternates the machine gun extrapolation and ambiguously sardonic laconism for which we know her oh so well, but it remains, as ever, oh so good. Idris Elba’s principled former prosecutor defence attorney is as charming as only Idris Elba can be, even though we can see the lead-uo to his Mark Ruffalo-esque for-your-consideration table-thumbing speech from his introductory scene.

What becomes most intriguing to me, as I try and reflect on whether this is a weakness of the film, or its greatest strength, is the extent to which Molly Bloom’s connections are stressed in passing, but the film itself only ever seeks to investigate her and her non-disclosure of them. By actually seeing so little outside of Molly herself, the stakes of her predicament are somewhat too anchored in affect than effect, which cannot help but induce a certain weightlessness to the overall proceedings, however gripping individual scenes most assuredly are. Thus, there is very little sense of time passing, over the twelve year period of the main narrative, and thus any character building – or, indeed, unraveling – is effectively represented on a scene-to-scene basis. I do believe that, if the film’s exploration of Molly’s struggle with addiction had been more thorough, the uncertainty of time could have been a great asset to it’s phenomenological representation. However, this film was always going to operate in accordance with its stars’ performances and, on that level alone, it’s a powerhouse, no matter its predictability.

Accordingly, Molly’s Game seems to confirm what any reader has probably already surmised: a three-and-a-half star rating is for an at-most three star film this critic enjoyed to an at-least four star degree.

⭐⭐⭐1/2