L13FC: For the love of characters or why ‘The Shape of Water’ was better than ‘3 Billboards’

Let’s talk about the two leading films of the year assuming you have by now watched them. One annoyed the heck out of me and the other one pleased me on a number of levels. I’ve been thinking about why I utterly disliked Three Billboards and why I liked The Shape of Water. Structurally, the problem for me was the characters. Let me explain.


When telling a story, there have to be good guys and bad guys. It’s fine if your protagonist has faults, but if they are utterly unlikeable, then I can’t invest emotionally in their plight. In 3 Billboards there is only one character that garnered my sympathy. The son. The rest are obnoxious and deplorable. The big problem of the film is the unlikeability of Mildred Hayes played by Frances McDormand. I should feel the compassion of a mother experiencing a tragedy. What’s the point of the only flashback to the daughter showing them fighting and insulting one-another in a Jerry-Springer-low-brow dysfunctional fight? Mildred kicking two students at the curb and her speech to a priest who came to visit are two examples that made her unlikeable. Martin McDonagh’s script slaps the audience with shock statements instead of building an emotional relationship between the characters and the audience. What’s missing is subtlety and depth. The film never goes deeper than verbal insults, physical insults, unrealistic conversations, and motivations. It was painful to watch. A rare exception to this is when Woody Harrelson’s character Chief Bill Willoughby earns my emotions when McDonagh employs the voice over to show the chief’s remorse. Obviously, a lot of people loved the dark comedy. Frances’s Best Actress award was a shoe-in, but I thought her character was boring.

In The Shape of Water, the 1960s fairytale includes subtle references to social ills at the time. All the characters are endearing except for the obvious bad guy, governmental henchman Richard Stickland, played perfectly by Michael Shannon. Showing instead of telling, the story shows the fears from the 1960s such as fears of difference–Russian ideology, segregation, and homosexuality. The creature was part of the allegory, a wish by the characters to live in a fairytale world like the movies Elisa and Giles watch on the television set, manifested in their bubble world, all outcasts from the real world, the mute, “dumb” Elisa, the lonely Giles whose illustrations have become old-fashioned and replaced by photography, and we love him because his rejections refuse to destroy him. The fairy tale is full of depth and subtlety. It’s a far more interesting film. Add the beautiful set designs of the Orpheum theater, the windows in the apartment building, the teal colors of water, and a romantic, satisfying score by Alexandre Desplat, all add up to an instant winner in my book. I’m glad it won Best Picture.


So what are your thoughts on the balance of characters? If you liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I’d like to know why you thought it was a well written, dark comedy. 


38 thoughts on “L13FC: For the love of characters or why ‘The Shape of Water’ was better than ‘3 Billboards’

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  1. I have yet to see either film, and I suspect I will not be bothering with ‘Three Billboards’ until it gets a TV showing. Mainly because of the insufferable Frances McDormand, who seems to have started to believe that she is somehow the uncrowned Queen of Hollywood. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the Oscars on TV, sure that she would get Best Actress, and make one of her smug speeches.

    As for ‘Shape of Water’, I can’t wait. Del Toro, Shannon, and the wonderful British Actress Sally Hawkins. A perfect combination, and a DVD purchase for sure.
    (If you liked Hawkins, I can recommend this very ‘English’ film, where she co-stars with Eddie Marsan. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1045670/ )

    Best wishes as always, Pete. x

    1. Hi Pete. I still haven’t seen in her ‘Maudie’ which I hear she did a great job. I’d like to see ‘Happy Go Lucky’. Thanks for the tip.
      I enjoyed her and thought Frances was plucky when she first arrived on the scene and cheered when she won BA for Fargo. Since then, I have admired her work, but I wasn’t that keen about her performance here in 3 Billboards. It’s subjective. So many people loved her performance. I am in the minority. I was surprised how much she turned me off from the movie. I wasn’t expecting that.
      What say you about characters in general–or the off-balance of good guys and bad guys? Can you think of a film where you dislike the protagonist so much it turned you off from the film entirely?

      1. My main problem with protagonists is usually around the actor playing them. Tom Hanks has made me enjoy some films less than I might have, but for a better example, I could say that Brad Pitt’s character in Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ completely ruined that film for me. And in keeping with today’s theme, I hated McDormand in ‘Fargo’, and would have enjoyed the film so much more with almost any other actress in the role. Every time she appeared on screen in that film, I could feel my ‘irritation meter’ rising to ‘danger’. x

        1. Strange the effects of the chemistry of an actor to the audience. I try to give the actor a break (even one I’m not fond of) if they give it a sincere go and make me forget they are the star. Like you, I enjoy the “non-famous” choices. It’s great to see new faces and interpretations.

  2. Cindy, agree completely! Frances McDormand was unlikable, the script was pretentious and condescending, and the characters did things for no other reason that to tell the viewer how awful our country is – which I have no problem doing, but not in such a “preachy” way – now, a comment that is also a SPOILER, so stop if you haven’t seen the film:

    She firebombs a police station – because they Sheriff explained to her they didn’t have evidence to arrest anyone? So she has the right to do that? And in the end, they go on a “Death Wish” trip to get the guy proven NOT to have committed the crime, but it’s OK because he must be guilty of something? REALLY???

    1. I know! I was so mad. I kept thinking, “Good grief, I hope people from across the pond (or another continent) don’t think that’s how we all really are?” At the very least, if I were from Missouri, I would have been insulted. Well, good. Glad we agree. What did you think of ‘The Shape of Water?’ I’m sorry, I don’t remember your review.

      1. Cindy, it was an arrogant Director’s broad swipe against the US – again, I am ALL FOR criticizing and fixing what is wrong with our country, but it was SO condescending – I hated it more and more with each passing minute – now as for “Shape Of Water”, I posted about it near the end of the year, which I will include if you want to read more…my wife and I loved it: the acting, the direction, and most importantly, the love story that transcends intolerance and hate – THAT is what we responded to – don’t know if you saw the Oscars, but when Jimmy Kimmel said “thing are so bad for women in Hollywood now that they’ve started dating FISH”, we laughed and laughed! – https://johnrieber.com/2017/12/26/the-shape-of-water-guillermo-del-toros-masterpiece-the-best-film-of-2017/

        1. I saw the oscars and loved that bit myself. As for politics, I’m in the middle and love my country while recognizing there are flaws in a lot of it, I dislike showboating and pulpit bashing.

    1. Well, it’s my opinion. A lot of people liked 3 Billboards. Obviously, I preferred the other. Hope you like it when you see it. There are nostalgic elements that I know you will like.

    1. Eric, I read a lot of reviews who found it to be a positive experience. I was late in providing my two cents. Knowing your love for classic movies and your romantic sensibilities, I do believe you’d like ‘The Shape of Water’ and hope you rent it soon.

  3. Ive not seen them either, though I’ve watched the trailers on Youtube, and decided the 3 billboards is not for me. I will probably see the Shape of Water, but had to laugh at a friend who posted he’d seen it, and it was all very good, but the creature still looked like a bloke in a wetsuit! 🤣

  4. Three Billboards raised an interesting question, and it is the reason why I think I fundamentally disagree with what you say about the characters. Do there always have to be characters that are definably good and definably bad? I find that in reality, with the exception of extremists, people are complex and don’t fall easily into one category or another. Now for the purposes of gaining sympathy and making a film you want to spend time with, I think it is important for a filmmaker to give us someone to root for, and here it is ostensibly Mildred Hayes we are to root for. That is very difficult when you have a supposed protagonist who is so woe-as-me she turns to kicking kids in the groin and setting fire to police stations. In that way, I found her to be the antithesis of boring, but to each their own. 🙂

    Part of me thought that while Sam Rockwell’s performance was great, he teetered on the verge of caricature at times and in my mind, and despite me seeing what it was that the director was trying to achieve, I didn’t believe he was worthy of the redemption arc he ultimately was given. That didn’t sit well with me and it also felt the least-developed aspect of the whole enterprise.

    I think that film is intended to be an unpleasant, shocking experience. I haven’t written a review of it because truthfully I don’t really know if I liked it so much as I was impressed by how much it annoyed me while making me admire the commitment of those who came to work on it.

    As far as The Shape of Water Goes — no comment. Lol!

    1. Hiya, Tom! Oh, I’m so glad you stopped by to give your thoughts on 3 Billboards. With regards to Sam Rockwell–redemption arc you mentioned bothered me, that is, the quickness of his turnaround. Only because the Chief told him in one conversation to do the right thing, that’s it for motivation and he’s now trying to solve the case and redeem himself. I just didn’t buy it. I thought between Rockwell and Harrelson, Harrelson was the more deserving simply because his character was more even-keel, flawed and complex, but more realistic than the caricature performance by Rockwell. Ironically, I caught The Green Mile on the television the very next night and noticed the same goofy-baffoon expressions Rockwell favors. He was better in The Green Mile…
      I believe you when you stated the goal of the film was to be unpleasant and shocking. But I’ve seen a lot of great films which were both unpleasant and shocking (Silence of the Lambs comes to mind). I tend to focus on the writing of the script when I’m scratching my head about a film that bothers me, especially when it seems the world loves it. The script is where my grumblings come in. For me, it was the lack of subtelty and the constant shock. I felt abused instead of allowed to ponder and think about the film intelligently.
      So, for The Shape of Water—did I miss your review? Did you hate it? If you didn’t like it, I’d be curious to know why. Usually, our tastes are similar, but it’s fun, too, when we completely disagree.
      Thanks, Tom!

      1. Yeah, that was the problem I had with Rockwell’s character too. A very rushed and quite frankly unearned redemption arc didn’t sit well with me. I loathed the man in that movie, but in my mind that is a testament to a great display of acting.

        I see your points with regards to the writing as well. It is a rather choppy, almost episodic narrative. McDonagh’s style strikes me as being antagonistic and caustic for the sake of being antagonistic and caustic. It is far from a subtle film, as it seeks to basically torment the audience with reminders of the kinds of intolerances are still massively and despairingly present in society. The clash between Mildred Hayes and Officer Dixon sent me back to the Ferguson, Missouri drama and the Detroit riots. More besides.

        There is such a disconnect and a lack of trust between the general public and law enforcement that a movie like this only feels like it creates more harm than good. I see that too. For me, I think it was a mood thing. It felt like the perfect movie for the times in which we are living. That said, I think the film could have used some toning down and maybe another character we could actually root for without feeling guilty.

    2. I did not read your comments until I finished my own. I try to be independent and follow my own opinions on films. I mentioned today (3/18/18) that I liked both films for different reasons. I also don’t think we need to like characters to like a movie. Knowing “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” was based on a real mother who was gritty and irritatating, I liked Frances MacDormand’s portrayal. If my daughter were raped and murdered, I would have anger and rage. If I had that ex-husband in the film I would want him to never be around my house. Justice was what I sought in this film!
      In “The Shape of Water” I loved the fantasy/science fiction elements of this film. I also cringed and hated the mean and hateful actions of the government worker against the Alien. I enjoyed the friendship between the closet gay man and the mute cleaning woman. They were gently and carefully created. The friendship of the two cleaning women was special, too. The Russian scientist portrayed my hopes for our world: that we may cross over lines and walls to become co-conspirators in creating Peace.

  5. I saw Billboards, Water, and Darkest Hour …
    Perhaps it’s my love and respect (prejudice) for Churchill, I enjoyed that movie the most. Therefore (drum roll) I wondered that if it hadn’t been so very obvious that Oldman was going to win the Best Actor Oscar, whether this took votes away from Darkest Hour?? Since we know how political The Academy Awards can be, it’s a legitimate question.
    Guess we’ll never know.

  6. I loved both movies since an unlikable mother may have actually been the character behind the “true” story. If so, unlikable people grieve, argue angrily with their children and exes and it was the most “real” movie I had seen in a long, long time.
    The Shape of Water was a fantasy. It held that irritating, very mean man who beat on an innocent alien! It has a wonderful friendship between a closet gay man and a mute woman. It had a lovely, endearing romance! The balance may have been better in it, but it was all made up!
    Cindy, I would put “Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri” in the category of “12 Years a Slave.” The Truth hurts and is Not pretty!!

    I am emphatically recommending both movies since they are two different film categories: science fiction and dramatic history.
    There are my opinions which may not match up but I had already seen both by Oscar time. They both deserve viewers, in my opinion.

  7. I agree with you. I loved The Shape of Water, and am also glad that it won the Best Picture.
    Recently, I was reading some French-language reviews of it and was completely stunned to find out that many French critics absolutely hated it – giving it zero to one stars, and even some said it is not worth anything, even free-viewing. Then I realised about the plagiarism claims and how in France Jeunet (the director of Amelie) is worshipped. That may explain all the negativity. But, I still thought that was a bit unfair.

    1. Hmm. News to me, but I think that’s interesting. I’m not aware of plagiarism claims. Who knows why a film touches one group and repels another. I appreciate your comment, DB.

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