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 were 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. 


55 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.

    1. i loved darkest hour and feel its being slighted was more the result of promitng dunkirk than competing with billboards. i lerned much more about dunkirl from darkest hour than the weak dunkirk, which stole most of its visual ideas from the old british film of the same title as wel as the french weekend in dunkirk from the early sixties. darkest hour would have been the best picture winner had similar standards existed now as they did pre 1980. my iew of the current situation is that the films are not voted on by a select group of academy members who viewed the films in a theatrical setting, but by every single member of every union working in hollywood, who can received dvds of all the nominees. thus, the winners are not truly the cream of the years achievements but the favorites of the lower echelons of the film making community. in other words, if you have a small part in one movie, you are eligible to vote, even if your knoledge of film making is nil.

      1. I liked Dunkirk, too. That was an exceptional performance. I’ve wondered how films were selected and who voted. If every single member of the union can vote–that explains a lot why I find myself scratching my head why it was selected in the first place, or more frequently, “This was the best of the year?”

  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.

  8. Well, I may just press like on all of your posts and not comment. I usually catch up with other bloggers and say my thoughts, not to disagree but to incorporate my own thoughts. Take it easy, Cindy.

  9. i didnt see any characters at all in billboards, just a group of smart alecky smug actors thinking they were making a heavy political statement. after half an hour i couldnt take anymore and took out the screener and filed it. when it won the golden globe and was nominated fr the oscar, i felt compelled to give it another chance. i didnt mind it so much this time, and watched it through to the end. but the whole concept was so ludicrous, the writig so stupid, ad the acctig so in need of direction that its possibility of being named best picture at the oscars appalled me. but, with the exception of the shape of water, which i loved at the tie bt cant remember a thing about it now, were just as bad, and in some cases worse. i recently rewatched the bridge on the river kwai, an oscar winner from better days, and kept thinking, this is the kind of movie that deserves to win the best picture oscar. and this year oscar night came and wet without me even knowing it, i wasnt boycottng it, i simply forgot. now, back to the issue you have brought up, cindy, and i am so happy to see you back in top form here. i dont care if a character is pleasant or unpleasant. rbert de niro built his career on playing unleasat characters, and the only time anyone complained was when he hit liza minelli in new your new york. ad i dont think a movie needs heroes and villains either. my favorite movie of 2018 , Toni, had neither…but hat a script, what acting, and the emotonal truth and depth was overwhelming. the first time i watched that movie, i had to turn it off too. but not because it was a crummy waste of time, but because it was so overwhelmingly tragic that i couldnt take it. i want real characters, character i believe in, characters that exist, not only on the screem, but in my mind for years afterwards. like brandos terry in on the waterfront. now there was a real creep, but what humanity! and what about keitel bad lieutenant? scum of the worse order, but what a performance!

    1. Bill, yes, you are right, when I think about it. The DeNiro reference did it–although, I let it pass when I was younger, now that I’m older, I have no desire to watch Casino or Goodfellas because they are creeps and I don’t like them enough to care. For DeNiro, his best role was Taxi–there’s a complicated protagonist that gets under your skin. I’m glad we agree on 3 Buildboards, you summed it up pretty much as I was thinking. Yes, to The River Kwai–my mother made an interesting comment yesterday. She turns to TCM now to watch classics because they are comforting. She said, “Today’s movies are violent, graphic, and controversial. But then, back in the day, so were these “comforting” classics. My favorite movie of all time, “On the Waterfront” is just such an example. I think my appreciation for today’s movies are growing dim because producers et al are more concerned with shock and random stream-of-consciousness than a solid story with good dialogue. Characters that are real whether bad or good are fine but if the premise is insulting, it’s hard for me to stick around.

      1. my view, the thing that makes modern movies, and most of the other popular arts, bad..is that everybody involved in them is simply mimicking what has already been done. the average movie is comprised of stock scenes we hac seem hundreds of times before, with actors asking themselves, what would pacino do with this scene? the directrs are even worse. a fried of mine was once drected to do that hames dean thing. while leanng against a car. in on the waterfront, each of those actors not only created a distinctive character, but pllayed the scene , nt as if it were a scene from another movie, but as if it were reality itself. same goes with rock and ro. until the early seventies, the rock stars were just being themselves and their natural charisma and innate ability resulted in original style. then the next generation watched them n televiion and lerned the moves, copied them, and the generic rock star was born. things are worse today, because even the lowly folksinger must compet in the same buiness arena as a lady gaga. thus we have sam smith and ed sheeran. back to movies, the insistace upon template scripts that could be written wihtout any human assistance, directors who have no ideas, and ctors who emulate their vocationnal ancestors,,,,,,

        1. Yes, yes, yes.
          During research for the novel, I discovered the Hungarian director, Paul Fejos, who came to Hollywood in the late 20s and made a popular film “The Last Moment” at Universal. In 1931, he left Hollywood claiming all films were shit. He wanted to make art and was fed up. Ha! Even back then, people complained of crappy films. The plight of all film stars, it seems, throughout the ages–“Where’s the script? Give me something to work with!” For every 100 films made, only 10 are worthy of watching, in my cynical estimation.

          1. Fejos isnt the best representative of european directors in hollywood, as e only made three medicre pictures in 1928 and 29 before being fired from the fourth and returning to europe. those were acturally one of the periods of the highest artistic achievements in cinematography, many of the ecellent films directed by immigrants from europe. as he was offered a contract with universal on the basis of an eperental art film e made in europe, he was hoping to join the ranks of murnau and sternberg, he was disappointed when he was assigned trivial scripts. …10 out f 100 is a good estimate, when i was a film critc and covered the festivals, i would see 100 films over six week period. 10 were excellent, 20 were good, 30 were passable, 20 were bad, and 20 were unwatchable.

  10. I read this ages ago but I’ll finally get around to commenting now. For me and I might be alone here I got McDormand’s rage. I got why she would kick those kids and tell that priest where to go in her own home. She’s over hypocrisy, she’s over kind words and people trying to scare or silence her. She clearly was abused in her marriage, she’s lost a child in a disgustingly brutal crime and she’s had it up to here with the whole world. So while most of us wouldn’t behave that way during grief I had no trouble believing and may be even enjoying the fantasy of it. But there are moments throughout where we see she can spin and have sympathy. The film is all about how rage and how it controls us, gives us strength to stand up to injustice and bullies but ultimately continues the cycle of violence. It’s also more nuanced to show that rage was an issue with McDormand before hand and that even though she loved her daughter she didn’t communicate with her well before her death. The film’s turning point is the burning of the station where McDormand has now hurt someone with her rage and the metaphor is strong as literally it creates a rebirth from the ashes of the flame with that character. Afterwards all the aggressive characters start making different choices, McDormand doesn’t swing the bottle, Sam Rockwell gets the evidence by taking a beating rather than fighting, the Billboards guy kicks this off by handing off the juice, the first real act of kindness in the movie where vengeance could’ve been carried out. In fact the only character who is even mildly aggressive following the fire is Dinklage when at the end of her date he tells her he’s not a bad guy and what makes her so special. In my mind this is because he is being assertive and not aggressive and is finally taken back some self respect for himself. I think all of these decisions are well thought out and in support of the main theme add up to a fulfilling whole. My only problem with the film is the suicide. I guess there is a point being made here, Harrelson’s character gets a lot more done in death than he did alive by using people’s love for him beyond the grave for good but it still struck me as selfish. So I’ve got my issues with the film but I liked it more than you I think. Obviously agree with everything you say about The Shape of Water, but was surprised by a couple things with Shape. I loved the themes and symbolism but wanted more from the love story than just ideas. Still a better film I think and a good winner for Best Picture. I love forward to seeing The Florida Project to see what I think of that.

    1. Lloyd, I can always count on you to give the type of comments I’m thirsty to read. You make a sensible case with regard to McDormand and her character. Seething in rage, sick of hypocrisy –I get that motivation. And I find your noticing “The film’s turning point is the burning of the station where McDormand has now hurt someone with her rage and the metaphor is strong as literally it creates a rebirth from the ashes of the flame with that character” to be insightful. For all that, we will have to agree to disagree–the suddenness of their characters switching gears ( especially Sam Rockwell’s character) was too jarring for me. With Shape, I agree with you that I wanted more with the love story. It was a beauty and the beast fable, and the beast needed to show reciprocity to her gestures. More than eating an egg or as her fantasy dance partner. Just one scene with her being gentle to her or trying to communicate his desire for escape and her going with him.
      I haven’t seen The Florida Project. Sounds depressing. I just watched “Lean on Pete” and can recommend that film for depressing realism.

      1. Thank you Cindy, that is very kind. I was pleased myself when I read the phoenix metaphor into it. All good points. I got that Rockwell could change and that Harrelson’s death was pulling him away from his mother’s ignorance but I can also see how that can fail to be convincing and too jarring. Del Toro beautifully spoke about Sally Hawkins lines about how the creature looks at her and how that is love but I think you summed up what was lacking for both of us with the romance. Lean on Pete I may just have to check out.

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