My final two days at the Chicago International Film Festival featured three films about the failings of the law. First was “Custody,” the debut feature film by French writer-director Xavier Legrand, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2013 short film “Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything).” “Custody” picks up where that short, which depicted a woman and her two children fleeing from her spouse whom she fears will attack her, left off. We begin in the custody battle, in which the father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet, “Assassin’s Creed”), begs to have a role in his children’s lives. His ex-wife, Miriam (Léa Drucker, “The Blue Room”), disagrees. Or at least their lawyers are arguing as such. “Custody” ’s opening is 20 minutes long, yet moves quickly and, even with the burden of legalese in subtitles, it’s blistering. Its finale, stripped of the niceties of the courtroom, when the father takes matters in his own hands, is even more so. In between is a bit of a drag, but when the bookends are that good, who cares?
Even when the action is sparse, Legrand is exceptionally talented at building tension out of the mundanity of life. The film’s only score is the revving of engines, the whirr of a bus, the television sounding off in another room. We’re forced into a dysfunctional family, yet it’s clear enough to understand everyone’s behavior instantly. Where Legrand finds suspense is in constructing characters that are defined, yet unpredictable. He’s concocted his formula, and we’re waiting for the explosion.
Legrand was present for a Q&A after the film. I asked him how he was able to make the film’s opening scene, a 20-minute legal proceeding, so compelling.
“There’s constant tension because at first you discover the point of view of the lawyers, before you hear the parents,” he said through a translator. “So there’s additional intensity because you discover the character through exposition through others than themselves, so that creates wonderful tension. So it’s a question of the rhythm. [I] attended such a session where there’s a lot of blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah and then silence, and the silence I guess was the moment of tension.”
When the socio-legal thriller “In the Fade” premiered at Cannes, Heather Heyer hadn’t yet been killed by a neo-Nazi driving a car into a crowd of people at the Charlottesville rally ostensibly planned to “unite the right.” But that was then. The German film follows a German woman, Katja (Diane Kruger, “The Infiltrator,” who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance), who seeks revenge on a neo-Nazi couple after they set off a bomb that kills Katja’s Kurdish husband and their son. Her lawyer and friend, Danilo (Denis Moschitto, “Closed Circuit”), assists her lawsuit, and when that avenue fails, she turns to more illicit options.
Inevitably, “In the Fade,” the latest film from writer-director Fatih Akin (“Soul Kitchen”) has garnered stunning new relevance. And though its ending is controversial, it offers a certain catharsis to those who seek some degree of vengeance, legal or otherwise, in their grief. But there are a number of undeniable flaws that derail the film. The film’s artful technical achievements, including one notable scene in a bathroom, contrast rather harshly with the film’s seedy nature. Katja is unstable (understandably, to be sure) and does drugs often. Her patience is punctuated by brief outbursts, which only slightly mounts tension but doesn’t work exceptionally well. Queens of the Stone Age founder Josh Homme completed the excellent score, a highlight of the film, and it sounds like an orchestra trapped in a sawmill. One can only hope Homme receives more commissions in the future. But ultimately, if “In the Fade” works, it’s only because it feels like we’re watching an incidentally interesting court case. In other words, if the crime at the center involved anything less than terrorism, bombing and neo-Nazis, “In the Fade” would be rather boring.
My week at the Chicago International Film Festival ended with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the latest opus from Ireland’s most beloved playwright, Martin McDonagh. His two previous films, 2008’s “In Bruges” and 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths,” are excellent, taking material that would ordinarily be coded as drama (perhaps much less so with the meta “Seven Psychopaths”) and transforming them into broad comedies. The premise for “Three Billboards,” in which a grieving mother, dissatisfied with her small town police department’s intransigence in the investigation of her daughter’s rape-murder, puts up a series of billboards calling on the town chief to act, seems natural. But unlike his previous two films, McDonagh’s latest, while delivering an inordinate amount of belly laughs, packs a gut-wrenching emotional punch.
It’s safe to say that Frances McDormand delivers perhaps the greatest performance of her career and certainly the best since her Oscar-winning turn in 1996's “Fargo.” McDormand is not only riotously funny as the vengeful Mildred Hayes, but she plays the role with a tractor-load of sympathy and resonance. McDormand can destroy a character with her eyes alone, and when her words are written by one of our greatest living writers, the combination is revelatory. Not to be ignored is Sam Rockwell (“Digging for Fire”), who plays Dixon, a virulently racist cop who nevertheless can engender admiration. Rockwell was the undeniable highlight of “Seven Psychopaths,” and he extends his excellent track record here as well.
The rest of the cast is stunningly perfect, from McDormand’s main foil in Woody Harrelson (“War for the Planet of the Apes), to faux-love interest Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) to disturbed ex-husband John Hawkes (“Everest”), to conflicted son Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”), to 2017’s breakout star Caleb Landry Jones (“Get Out”). But the scene-stealer is undoubtedly Samara Weaving (“Monster Trucks”), whose ditzy ramblings as the all-too-disengaged Penelope are riotously funny.
Of course, at the root of the story is grief and pain, on top of rape and murder. Not the lightest stuff, to be sure, and McDonagh treats the subject with respect. That he can seemingly magically conjures tears, both of laughter and sadness, at will is a testament to his writing ability, but even more important, “Three Billboards” is a pitch-perfect movie for an angry America. It’s a movie for an America that doesn’t quite get why some sexual assaulters are deservedly shunned and why some are elected to office, for an America with police departments that, as McDormand scathingly says, are “too busy torturing Black folks to solve actual crime.” It’s a movie for America in 2017. And it couldn’t come soon enough.