Welcome to the CinemaScore Film F-estival, where the F stands for failure, frustration, and “Can I please have my fucking money back?” You want perplexing subtext? Excessive unpleasantness? Willfully perverse genre experimentation? Downer endings? We’ve got it all and then some. There are arty indulgences granted to big stars, and more general wallows in auteur whims and the grimiest depths of despair. Remember: Nearly everyone who filled out survey cards in Phoenix and Coral Springs hated it, but maybe you’ll like it!
A bit of context first: CinemaScore is a polling outfit that started in 1979, when founder Ed Mintz, according his son Harold, was disappointed by The Cheap Detective and wanted to know what “real people, not critics” thought of the film. (Note: Critics are, in fact, real people. This ranks with “You live in your parents’ basement” and “You’re just a failed filmmaker” near the top of facile movie-critic insults.) Pollsters are stationed in multiplexes across the country, where moviegoers are given a simple cardboard questionnaire that asks them to fill out a few demographic categories and give the movie they’ve just seen a grade from A to F. The results are then tallied and reported on opening day, so studios and box-office watchers can get some idea of how word of mouth might affect a film’s performance on Saturday, Sunday, and the weeks ahead.
Though Nate Silver has yet to weigh in on CinemaScore’s methodology—I suspect it’s somewhere between Rasmussen and the Unskewed Polls guy—there are two things to take away from the results: 1. Most movies get high marks, because people choose to see movies that appeal to them, and Hollywood is committed (too committed, frankly) to giving them exactly what they want. 2. No nitpicking about methodology can obscure the fact that F-rated movies are films that general audiences rejected. So whatever the merits of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, Killing Them Softly, Bug, Wolf Creek, Darkness, The Box, The Devil Inside, and Silent House—the eight movies that have gotten F CinemaScores to date—it’s clear that “real people” rejected them.
And yet the idea of an F CinemaScore Film Festival came to me because I happen to like (or at least find redeeming) five of the eight movies on that list: Solaris, Killing Them Softly, Bug, Wolf Creek, and The Box. To me, what these cases reveal about CinemaScore is that it isn’t a metric of merit, but a barometer of comfort, with satisfaction on one end and estrangement on the other. But estranging qualities are qualities nonetheless, even if they break from expectation. The romantic comedies of Gerard Butler may be dull, deplorable, or some combination of the two, but they aren’t going to alienate people who unaccountably enjoy the romantic comedies of Gerard Butler. But when Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt, forgoes action in favor of commentary on the 2008 financial crisis and election-year politics, it’s roundly rejected for the crime of cutting against the grain.
There’s another factor at play, too, my intrepid F-estivalgoers: Whenever anything is branded the worst of the worst, it’s nearly always a must-see. That’s why The Room or Glen Or Glenda? are bad-movie standbys, while the actual worst films of all time are lost to the remainder bin of history. Films that are bad in a way that makes people take note may be inept, but they’re distinctive and personal, and as striking in their own way as canonical classics on the other side of the spectrum. When I first considered writing about the CinemaScore Film F-estival, it was in anticipation of The Counselor, a philosophy-laden crime thriller of the Killing Them Softly variety, which I thought would give me a splashy centerpiece. It wound up scoring a “D,” perhaps on the merits of a few crackerjack action sequences, or Cameron Diaz humping a windshield, but sure enough, there was Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writing under the headline “Meet the worst movie ever made.” If I hadn’t seen it already—and approved of Cormac McCarthy’s smuggled insights about coming to terms with the existence of evil in the world—that header would have had me rushing out on opening night.
The aggravation of CinemaScore is how much it reveals—and, as a service, reinforces— Hollywood’s minimal interest in trying anything new. And that, in turn, trains moviegoers not to expect or appreciate the unexpected: On the barometer of comfort, both producers and audiences are set on “cozy.” Take The Counselor, for example. Broken down to its core plot elements, the film is a standard genre tale about an amateur crook (Michael Fassbender) who’s out of his depth. That’s a story that’s been told countless times before, and Cormac McCarthy knows it. So he uses that familiar framework to trojan-horse a dark, existential rendering of the themes that run through his work. Instead of having the crook square off against his cartel adversary, McCarthy gives that adversary a philosophical monologue to explain why the crook is doomed. If McCarthy did this in one of his novels, no one would bat an eye. For him to do it in a major studio movie is heresy. I suspect that in part, it doesn’t work as a movie because we’ve been given a narrow definition of what Hollywood movies are allowed to do.
Broadly speaking, the two criminal offenses that bind the five films in our CinemaScore Film F-estival are defying expectations and not having the courtesy to end on a happy note. Though Soderbergh’s Solaris remake brings a sleek, romantic quality to Andrei Tarkovsky’s more cerebral original, it nonetheless doesn’t behave like the studio space adventures of the 21st century, which follow the traditions of Westerns and action movies more than true science fiction. The Box has a great hook, courtesy of the Richard Matheson short story “Button Button,” about a mystery man who presents a couple with a box and offers them $1 million if they press the button on top—with the knowledge that somewhere in the world, someone they don’t know will die. But writer-director Richard Kelly steers the film down a rabbit hole even murkier than the one in his cult favorite Donnie Darko, and few were willing to follow him. This was not an appeal to Donnie Darko acolytes, or the few, the proud, the Southland Tales fans; this was a Warner Bros. picture.
For their parts, Bug and Wolf Creek are unrelenting exercises in horror and despair, albeit of a different variety. Though Bug director William Friedkin amplifies the intensity in every way he can—by whipping his actors, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, into a paranoid frenzy; by projecting their delusions through an aggressive soundtrack; by keeping the camera close—it’s fundamentally a two-person play (scripted for the stage by Tracy Letts) that ends in flames. Wolf Creek is about three backpackers held captive in the outback by a deranged Crocodile Dundee, where they’re tormented and tortured, far from civilization. There’s no “Final Girl” or lifesaving third-act deus ex machina—only a cutting away of the safety net, letting audiences feel the weight of the characters’ helpless, hopeless struggle for survival. As ugly as the genre can get, even horror films are expected to let in a little light.
Add to those four Killing Them Softly, which teases viewers with a tense, masterfully executed heist sequence at a mobbed-up poker game before settling into grimy ambience and talk, and it’s admittedly one frustrating, perhaps indigestible block of cinema. None of the five are without flaws—quick adjectives that come to mind include “arch” (Solaris), “incoherent” (The Box), “overwrought” (Bug), “sadistic” (Wolf Creek), and “unsubtle” (Killing Them Softly)—but they also go places most studio releases fear to tread. In response to The Counselor’s reception, director Edgar Wright quipped, “Almost all ’70s movies would have had terrible CinemaScores.” Scrubbing such films from the studio docket may save us some exasperating nights at the multiplex, but it’ll spare us some memorable ones, too.