Friday, June 25, 2010
Movie review: Winter’s Bone
Squirrel. It's what's for dinner.
Debra Granik's masterful, atmospheric Winter's Bone has a dyed-in-the-wool authentic feel: From start to finish, it seems that we've left our comfortable urbanity far behind and suddenly been transported to the hinterlands of the Missouri Ozarks. Where it's cold and dangerous.
Here we take up virtual residence with the desperately destitute Dolly family, who at first acquaintance appear to be the very definition of PWT. There's a trampoline in the side yard; they're in trouble with the law; they supplement their meager food supply with fresh squirrel harvested from the surrounding woods with a .22 rifle.
Holding the family together by force of will is young Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a commanding and astonishingly adept performance), who single-handedly dispels that PWT label by virtue of her -- well -- virtue. Though only 17, Ree faces some very adult problems, and she faces them head-on and eyes-open.
Raised up (to employ the regional vernacular) amidst an extended family who hold blood loyalty and keeping one's mouth closed in higher esteem than adherence to the law, Ree is forced into the role of backwoods detective in order to ferret out the whereabouts of her dad, Jessup. He's gone missing after having put up the family farm and wooded acreage as collateral against a bail bond; his court appearance is coming up soon, and if he doesn't show, the property will be forfeited -- putting Ree, her two younger siblings, and their emotionally disabled mother out in the cold.
The problem with obtaining information about her father from family and friends is that they are all involved, in some form or fashion, with illegal methamphetamine production. Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who snorts powdered crystal from a tiny spoon, was closest to Jessup before his disappearance. Teardrop advises Ree, in downright threatening terms, to stop asking questions or face the potentially violent consequences.
Teardrop is one scary dude, but he's a cream puff compared to cousin Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall, menacing in a bearded outlaw biker kind of way). Thump runs the local hillbilly mafia, and he's not in the habit of granting interviews with distant female relations; as Ree gets it from her cousin Megan (Casey MacLaren): "He's my grandpa, and I'm scared of him." Smart girl.
Ree, unwilling to give up when there's still a shred of hope that she can find a way to keep her family together, demonstrates bravery beyond all reason. Even when it's clear that her relentless pursuit of the truth is liable to get her killed, she keeps on poking the hornet's nest. There's just no quit in her.
Strong performances are turned in by Garret Dillahunt as Sheriff Bascomb, who is not very well liked in the community (due to his enforcement of the law and such); and the aforementioned John Hawkes as the uncle who may just end up being addled enough to buck the odds and sign on to Ree's lost-from-the-get-go cause.
Standing out as the piece's most fascinating (and sinister) character is Dale Dickey as Merab, a Milton householder given the unenviable task of doing the left-handed dirty work for Thump. She and her sisters see to the more unsavory aspects of administering a criminal enterprise, such as putting the hurt on interlopers and keeping track of the whereabouts of those who've crossed them -- dead or alive.
Adding to the film's authenticity are the minor supporting players, many of whom appear to have had no formal acting training: They're just out there being themselves in their native environment. At one point in Ree's canvassing of Jessup's known associates, she visits a house where a group of homespun musicians are practicing their craft. Featured singer (and the film's music consultant) Marideth Sisco is no one's idea of a film star, but having experienced her performance, I can imagine no one else in the role.
Having now seen Winter's Bone for the second time (with the first coming earlier this year during it's centerpiece screening at the DALLAS International Film Festival), I am more impressed than ever with what director/co-screenwriter Granik has accomplished. Even knowing what was about to happen at various turns, I still sat enthralled.
This pitch dark tale of courage, determination, and the strength of family bonds needs to go right to the top of your must-see list. If you can stand the suspense.
DRUG CULTURE: "Here's a doobie for your walk." - Ree's aunt, after her unproductive visit with Teardrop
SEXIST REMARK: "Don't you got no men to do this?" - Merab, re. Ree's request for a sit-down with Thump
MAYBE NEXT WEEK: "Do we eat these parts?" - Ree's young brother Sonny, gutting a squirrel
"Not yet." - Ree's reply