Rating:

Family Feud in the Flinty Ozark Winter

Main Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes

Director: Debra Granik

There’s something inexplicably fascinating about the brand of rural poverty abundantly displayed in Winter’s Bone.  A group of people living a marginal existence yet as bound to their land and their history as any moneyed American royalty.  What people go through in order to maintain a semblance of independence is but a single facet of Debra Granik’s look at the struggle of one young girl growing up in southern Missouri.

Winter’s Bone opens with a brief, quiet look at the life of Ree Dolly.  At the tender age of seventeen she may have hopes and dreams, but they are by necessity put far to the side while she struggles to raise her two young siblings and care for her mentally ill mother.  As we move into the heart of the film we learn that Ree’s father is out of jail on bond and has inconveniently disappeared.  Since he put the house and land that provide the meager support keeping the family alive up for his bail, Ree sets out to find her absentee parent.  She knows her search will put her in danger – her father is not an upstanding citizen and neither are her relatives.  It is those relatives that she will have to seek out in order to find him and they will not accept the intrusion of a young woman without consequence.

Winter’s Bone is more than a story about a teenager forced to raise the family her parents have effectively abandoned.  It’s also more than a story about drug cooking rural thugs.  It’s about a culture that most of us do not understand and don’t want to recognize as continuing to exist.  Ree is a symbol of the fiercely independent rural poor who have land and will do what they have to do to keep it.  Deeply entrenched hierarchies within communities and families as well as firmly established codes of behavior reinforce an unsustainable lifestyle to the point where violence is all but inevitable.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree gives an amazing performance as a girl who teeters on the fence between accepting the culture in which she was raised and giving it a firm middle finger when it threatens to pull apart her already fragile family.  Lawrence is not traditionally beautiful in this role – the American ideal of beauty would ill-fit this character.  There is no tiny fragile flower that could play this role.  Ree needs to be strong and stubborn and not afraid to get dirty.  Lawrence is a perfect choice for the part – she carries her Ree with strength and a pride that we know from the outset is going to cause her trouble.  But we also know that without it she and her family would be lost.  Her appeal is in the real world beauty of youth and determination that sets her apart from the older, hardened women in her community who have been beaten down (literally and figuratively) by a culture in which they have no power and little value.

This is Ree’s story and Lawrence carries it.  But surrounding her is a cast of character actors that bring this world to uncomfortably vivid life.  Valerie Richards, John Hawkes, Shelley Waggener, Dale Dickie and Ronnie Hall all inhabit their unpalatable characters completely – all looking as if bathing had forever been a foreign concept.  Their weathered, prematurely aged visages add yet another layer of desperate decay to the tone of the film.

The score, consisting of mournful, twangy bluegrass, is a perfect match for the setting and the somber tone of the film.  However, there isn’t quite enough of it.  There are too many long stretches of Ree trudging along from one unwelcome reception to another in silence.  The pace lags in the middle and a soundtrack with more presence could have moved those scenes along.

Winter’s Bone is set in the flinty Ozark winter, with frozen ground and visible breath, but without the beauty of a true snowy mountain winter.  The choice of seasonal setting further highlights exactly how close to the edge each of the characters exists.  The cinematography highlights the desolate disarray of abandoned, broken toys and subsistence level housing.  As Ree digs deeper into her family secrets, she is involved in a number of nighttime incidents that deepen the menace with an inky black that promises to hold unsavory surprises.  The entire film is visually effective, determinedly marking place and circumstance for the characters.

Winter’s Bone is not uplifting, it isn’t a rags to riches story and it isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense.  It’s an uncompromising look at a culture in which the main characters have little chance of surviving and one child willing to take the risks necessary to save her family.   It droops a little in the middle, but is pulled together by a fantastic performance by lead Jennifer Lawrence and able support from a long list of capable and generous supporting players that allow her to shine.  4 stars out of 5, recommended.

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