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Rapid Review: Winter’s Bone

July 28, 2010


Winter’s Bone is a tense, gritty pot-boiler of a film.  Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, it is set in the hinterlands of my home state of Missouri, but it might as well be set on another planet.  It paints a landscape that’s barren of either beauty or compassion, and it shows a way of life almost unrecognizable in its bleak brutality.

Deep in the Ozarks there’s a stark contrast between the bustling tourist trap of Branson and the backwoods misery inhabited by main character Ree Dolly.  Ree (newcomer Jennifer Lawrence) is a seventeen-year-old saddled with taking care of her two younger siblings and a mom who lives in a constant state of mental flatline.   Her father, a known meth dealer, has skipped out on his bail.  If he doesn’t show for his court date, her family could lose their home and lands. 

Ree fights to keep her family intact

This alone would be enough for any teenager to confront, but Ree lives in a community draped in tradition and conspiracy.  Many of Ree’s family, friends and neighbors are “cookers’ – meth producers and dealers.  It’s a frightening and all-too-real subculture.  Someone out there may know the truth about the location of her father, but breaking the code of silence could bring deadly consequences down on Ree and her closest kin.

Director Debra Granik shows us this fragile and unsavory world through Ree’s eyes.  Ree doesn’t have many compelling choices to look forward to.  As she wanders the halls at school, she can see the options before her: join the ROTC or become one of the unwed mothers in the classroom across the hall. 

Ree’s journey to discover the truth about her father is perilous and chilling.  It’s part hillbilly hideaway through the looking glass, part horror-tinged mystery.  The performances, especially by Lawrence as Ree and Deadwood alumnus John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop, are pitch-perfect, drawing the audience down a muddy and murky path that never quite sees the sun.  Jennifer Lawrence inspires empathy and admiration as a girl more human than most of the folks around her.  She’s sharp, honest and cunning, for all the good it might do her down the line.  Her survival instinct is well-honed.

Ree and her uncle teardrop search for clues

The meth-addiction and production statistics for Missouri are no myth, and Winter’s Bone is an unvarnished look at the consequences.  There are hidden dangers on the back roads no one’s quite willing to investigate.  In a land of poverty and pride, many of Ree’s nearest and dearest prefer self-medication to the pain and hardship of reality.

Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it is easy to see how the story connects with audiences.  Ree’s story has power and substance. It’s gasp-inducing in places, for all the right reasons.  Ree’s not your average heroine, and that’s what’s so compelling about her tale. 

Winter’s Bone is currently played in limited release in the K.C. area.  Head out for a showing before it slips out of theaters.  It’s worth it.

Overall Grade: A +

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