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'Three Billboards' is one of the year's complete originals

The first of the "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" has these three words on it: "Raped While Dying." On the second just yards away is written "And still no arrests." The third and final billboard in the series on Drinkwater Road asks "How Come Chief Willoughby?"

Almost no one drives on Drinkwater Road anymore, not since they built the super highway. The billboards, then, have been empty for years. They looked like a Walker Evans photo before Mildred Hayes posted the disturbing messages about her daughter's murder. Mildred lives nearby, though and that's why she spends $5,000 to have messages appear on them for the first time in years.

Mildred is played by Frances McDormand, which, for many, is all they'll need to know about Martin McDonagh's film. Remarkably, there is much more to know.

McDormand--who is in life Mrs. Joel Coen (which is one reason she starred in "Fargo," for which she won an Oscar)--is one of the wonders of American movies, an actress of conviction and integrity and power like very few others. This is a darkly comic movie about grief and vengeance and, in both, she is like a force of nature.

Mildred Hayes is not a woman to be messed with. A dentist who makes the mistake of expressing his displeasure at the rudeness of her billboards while she's in his chair finds his right thumbnail suddenly pierced to the skin with his own drill.

The film was written and directed by Martin McDonagh who has previously nominated for an Oscar for "In Bruges" (and has given us the lesser film "Seven Psychopaths").

Let me confess that I find one aspect of "Three Billboards" almost completely unprecedented. At no point in this wildly original movie will be you be able to predict what will happen in the film's next scene, no matter how familiar it might seem. Nothing in this film is ever what you quite expect it to be. So as much as there is to know about this film, that is how unfair it would be for me to tell you too specifically most of what there is.

A couple of very preliminary examples: Police chief Willoughby, who has not been able to find the horrific killer of Angela Hayes, is, in fact, the sympathetic hero of the film. He is played by Woody Harrelson. He's a small-town police chief full of patience and wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, he's also dying of pancreatic cancer.

That remarkable actor Peter Dinklage has a small role in the film that suddenly grows larger. Nothing about either his role or his performance resembles anything he's done before either.

Sam Rockwell begins as the city's most monstrous cop, a racist torturer who ends up to be as much of a focus of audience concern as his righteous nemesis Mildred Hayes, a woman who, quite literally, doesn't see why everyone in America shouldn't provide their DNA so that the rapist and murderer of her daughter can be located.

The whole cast is a kind of indie film wonderment. Occupying small roles are some actors who are, in most other films, far from small role actors--Zeljko Ivanek, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges. That is the mark of a writer/director whom actors are ready to follow wherever he leads them.

Who can blame them?

The quality of small films currently playing in town is rather extraordinary at this moment. Rejoice that "Three Billboards" is one of them.


"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Frances McDormand stars as a woman who challenges authorities in trying to find the murderer and rapist of her daughter. With Woody Harrelson and Peter Dinklage. 115 minutes. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.


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