What makes a bad movie? 

Critic Complex

click to enlarge Frances McDormand plays a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri

Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Frances McDormand plays a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri

I see a movie pretty much on a weekly basis. A few weeks ago I saw three movies in one weekend: Blade Runner 2049, Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It's a safe bet to say I prefer the celluloid joys over watching a Clemson/Carolina game. I'm just not a sports kind of guy.

Of the three films, Blade Runner 2049 was my favorite. Seeing what was basically a mega-budget sci-fi art film on the big screen was pretty awesome. Roman J. Israel Esq. was an all right Denzel Washington vehicle with a pretty impressive '70s soul soundtrack. For reasons that had little to do with the film itself, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was likely the most memorable.

The plot revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a small town mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter. Frustrated by the police chief William Willoughby's (Woody Harrelson) inaction she paints three signs with a question directed at him. From there, the film takes off in directions — particularly the conclusion — I wasn't expecting.

As the credits rolled, I smiled. Seconds later, I heard an audience member behind me declare, "That was the absolute worst movie I've ever seen." The worst? Was that hyperbole or did the unnamed viewer (I'll call her "Becky" for narrative sake) really despise the movie for a valid reason?

After seeing the film, I read a few reviews of the movie. Most of them were positive. The few that disliked it saw it as a derivative drama with uninspired stereotypes. With so many glowing reviews, I couldn't help but pointlessly hypothesize what "Becky" could not have liked. Maybe she didn't like the redemptive arc for the film's more loathsome character. Maybe she wanted more violence than what the film gave the viewer. Or maybe she had a multi-tiered reason for disliking the film.

Maybe she felt the film's protagonist was a cartoonish interpretation of female rage that existed alongside other female characters that were paltry stereotypes while all the male characters, including a couple of the revolting ones, were more nuanced. Was it that it was just another film where a racist was given more personality than the three Black characters? Heck, around this time 10 years ago, as the house lights went up, I heard an audience member utter the exact same thing at the end of another film with a similar conclusion, No Country For Old Men. Maybe that was the reason for Becky's reaction.

click to enlarge The dialogue between police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is "involved" - MERRICK MORTON/COURTESY OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
  • Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
  • The dialogue between police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is "involved"

Maybe she has only seen five movies in her entire life. Maybe she's only seen E.T., Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, and Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. If that's the case then, yeah, I can see how she'd come to that conclusion. Three Billboards may be a film, at its heart, about love and loss but, I'm sorry, it can't hold a glowing finger to the loss of your new alien friend E.T.

Martin McDonagh's drama is a good film but it doesn't have the classic romance of Bogie and Bacall. Sam Rockwell's performance as an asshole is pretty stellar but it can't touch the charm of Harrison Ford's lovable asshole Han Solo. The dialogue exchanges between Mildred and Willoughby are pretty involved but it's hard to match Jules and Vincent talking about Royales With Cheese. There are some very noteworthy scenes in Three Billboards but Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf has a lycan threeway. Dude, your moments of great actors playing complex characters just can't trump the random weirdness of furry B-movie actors passionately semi-embracing while turning into werewolves!

I really liked Three Billboards. I'd recommend it to a few friends but if they asked me if it was better than any of the aforementioned films I, like Becky, would say no. It comes in behind those five amazing films.

But, you know, it's also entirely possible that it's just my overactive imagination and that Becky, like her boyfriend, wasn't paying attention to the movie in front of her. I say this because when Becky wasn't chatting with "Biff," she was noisily shifting in her chair or going to get more stuff from the concession stand. If she paid little to no attention to the film, that the other audience members plucked down money to see, then there is a very good reason Becky didn't like the film. There is little visual or dramatic spectacle in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I tend to have an exaggerated infatuation with movies and a sometimes unrealistic expectation regarding the moviegoing experience in general. Maybe, Becky, you just aren't a movie kind of person.


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