Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a kind film, and it is not an easy one. It is thoroughly dark and more than a little sad, but has some comedic moments. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as some kind of demented moral play – a grim farce meant to explore the depths of human depravity and whether there is any potential for absolution. As such, the film sets up a horrible situation, doubles down a few times, and then challenges the spectator. Along the way, the performances are outstanding, and though some of the characters feel stereotypical or one-dimensional, that’s the point. Three Billboards is a poignant look at despair and hope, hatred and forgiveness, and prejudice and love.
In Thoroughbreds, writer-director Cory Finley delivers an astonishing debut. The film features two astounding lead performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of grim highschoolers. The plot of the film unwinds in four chapters (plus an epilogue), in which information is revealed piecewise and the tension and mystery of this thriller matures into a chilling climax. All the while, the spectator is treated to some stunning cinematography that perfectly captures the pristine affluence of the setting while simultaneously hinting at some dark kernel. This grim tone permeates the film, lending Thoroughbreds an additional layer of significance and meaning.
Like the past works of writer-director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), Okja isn’t so much an allegory as it is an outright morality tale. The Korean filmmaker seem intent on tackling each and every woe of modern society, from the danger of radioactive waste (and by extension, the short-sighted profit-seeking of big business) in The Host to the accelerating divisions between the wealthy and the poor in Snowpiercer. In Okja, Bong once again wraps his morality tale in a bit of science fiction. The titular Okja is one of several genetically-enhanced pigs, bred for slaughter in an attempt to solve the world’s hunger crisis. Where The Host was an obvious Monster Movie, and Snowpiercer more of a dystopian science fiction film, Okja is mostly a dark piece of satire. It’s just not clear who Bong means to target with his barbs.
The satire is the most fragile of all the genres. Drama fails or succeeds on the strength of very definite qualities like story, character, and pathos. Comedy has leeway with its execution on account of its casual tone, as even the blackest comedies have a jokey kernel. Strict genre fare or action is even more forgiving: as long as the film hits a few key points, we enjoy the parts that hit, and dismiss the parts that miss (i.e., the recent Mad Max, which is awesome yet fairly bereft of story). But with satire, if certain elements are missing – a unifying vision, a stylistic conceit, or even a single performance – then the product just feels off. So is the case with War Machine, the Netflix film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Though the satirical aspirations of this send-up of the War on Terror are apparent and welcome, there are simply too many missteps.