Quick thoughts on two of the year's big Oscar contenders.
Martin McDonagh's third film is a dark comedy about violence and revenge, much like the first two. This one, however, is easily the most successful to date, because it has the best characters and knows exactly where to stop. I've found McDonagh's previous work pretty uneven due to his insistence on over-the-top violence and fussy male leads I could never get very invested in. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" doesn't have these problems.
Our protagonist is a stubborn woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered several months ago. Frustrated by a stymied police investigation, she uses the three billboards of the title to call out police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This turns the town against her and sparks an escalating feud between Mildred and the police department, especially one Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a troubled man with poor impulse control. Full of twists and turns and colorful characters, it is impossible to predict where the story is going to go.
The writing and the performances drive the film, especially as the situation becomes more complicated and morally murky. What initially looks like a fun, straightforward vigilante picture gets much thornier once it becomes clear that there's no real bad guy here to root against or easy resolutions. The violent outbursts and misdirected anger, as spectacular as they are to watch, are ultimately self-destructive. Watching each character figure this out, or fail to, or just not give a damn, is fascinating. I also appreciate the way that McDonagh uses the traditional structure of a murder mystery to pull the rug out from under the audience multiple times.
The ensemble is great, with Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell expertly lobbing insults and threats at each other, while teasing out their characters' humanity in the quieter moments. Rockwell undergoes an especially impressive transformation, quickly shedding the image of the simple racist hick he appears to be at first glance. Woody Harrelson also proves invaluable, though in a very different sort of role than I anticipated. My only real quibble with the film is the actual filmmaking itself, which is pretty pedestrian. McDonagh has a great ear for dialogue, but his vision of Ebbing, Missouri is disappointingly generic.
Now on to northern Italy, where a seventeen year-old Jewish-American boy named Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) receive a new houseguest in the summer of 1983. This is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student who Elio's father has invited to visit, and to help with an archaeological project. Though Elio and Oliver have little in common and keep their distance at first, as the long summer wears on, the two of them develop a friendship that quickly turns romantic.
I wasn't surprised to see Luca Gugadino's name on the picture as director, bringing the same immersive tactility to the encounters here that he did in "I Am Love." However, it was a nice surprise to discover that James Ivory, of the famed Merchant Ivory films, wrote the script. He's the one who does the heavy lifting of setting up the characters as very intellectual, with very Continental attitudes about love and sex. Elio, for instance, already has an active love life and can talk circles around Oliver when it comes to literature and music. The fact that he still has a lot of growing up to do doesn't make him less of an equal partner in the love affair.
In fact, "Call Me By Your Name" completely ignores all the potential minefields in Elio and Oliver's romance - their age difference, their homosexuality, Elio's parents, and even the fact that they're both in relationships with girls. The movie chooses to focus solely on the business of two people circling each other, seducing each other, and falling in love. And there's a lovely sort of simplicity to that, where we can just enjoy two characters having a summer fling without having to rummage through all their personal baggage. Instead, obscene amounts of screen time are spent showing off the picturesque Italian countryside and Armie Hammer's physique.
I spent the majority of the film mildly engaged with it, enjoying Chalamet and Hammer's performances, and soaking up the lush atmosphere. However, it didn't really grab me emotionally until very, very late. And it's Michael Stuhlbarg who ends up stealing the show with a beautiful monologue about love and heartbreak that neatly recontextualizes everything that came before. "Call Me By Your Name" was made for a certain audience of art house romantics and I don't quite fit the bill, but in the end it makes a good case for broader appeal.