Thursday, June 24, 2010

Winter's Bone: Bone deep

Winter's Bone (2010) • View trailer for Winter's Bone
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.10
Buy DVD: Winter's Bone • Buy Blu-Ray: Winter's Bone [Blu-ray]

The setting  a snow-laden winter in the Ozarks of southern Missouri  is as cold, desolate and unforgiving as the souls of most folks who live there.

Director Debra Granik's sensitive handling of Winter's Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a searing, utterly unforgettable drama set in a cultural landscape so alien that identification with many of these characters is difficult, if not downright impossible.
Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, center), ever the pragmatist, won't embark on her quest
without first showing her younger sister (Ashlee Thompson) and brother (Isaiah
Stone) how to hunt for squirrels ... and then how to skin and cook them.

Many, but not all. Nobody will have trouble empathizing with star Jennifer Lawrence's Ree, a stalwart and stubborn 17-year-old girl given courage by the snapping jaws of utter desperation.

Ozark culture comes freighted with all sorts of baggage and preconceived notions; as a people, American mountain folk are pejoratively stereotyped just as badly as European gypsies. Snap judgments begin with the term "hillbilly" and descend from there to include moonshining, blood feuds and capricious interbreeding with girls barely into puberty.

Winter's Bone, scripted by Granik and Anne Rosellini, doesn't exactly refute all these notions; the film instead explores the grinding poverty and embittered emotional landscape that gives rise to such assumptions. Some of the players in this drama are every bit as morally bankrupt as the worst gang-bangers in South-Central Los Angeles; they're scary in a way that makes this film unsettling from its very first scene.

Ree, in stark contrast, has the valiant fortitude and noble bearing of a classical heroine; we can't help wondering how such an incandescent rose survived and even thrived in this dung heap. But she's no less credible a character for her many virtues; indeed, her behavior blazes a light of truth and righteousness that uncomfortably exposes the many human cockroaches trying to conceal themselves within dark and dingy cabins, and reminds them of long-suppressed remnants of decent behavior.

The question is whether such epiphanies will be sufficient ... or arrive quickly enough.

The story begins quietly, establishing the daily grinding pattern of Ree's life: She's the de facto parent of her two younger siblings  12-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and 6-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson)  and does everything for them. She also cares for their mother, a quiet, withdrawn woman no longer in her right mind, her soul perhaps having given up the struggle to endure in these harsh surroundings.

Even by local standards, Ree is losing the unspoken struggle to hold things together. Sonny asks why they don't request help from a neighbor; Ree matter-of-factly explains, "Never ask for what should be offered."

That's our first taste of the stoic pride and odd code of conduct that informs all interactions in these parts. People aren't merely suspicious of outsiders; they're suspicious of each other. Every stray remark  every potential interaction  is viewed as a threat until proven otherwise. The possibility of violence hovers, at all times, like a shroud.

The local law, Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt, recognized from TV shows such as Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles and Burn Notice), visits with bad news. Ree's father has been cooking meth again, and he's a fugitive; worse yet, he put his house and land up as collateral for his bond. If he fails to keep his court date in a few days -— and nobody expects him to show  then Ree, her siblings and their mother will be evicted from their own property.

Ree has to find her father: an impossible task for a young woman in a closed-mouthed, male-dominated community where illegal drugs are as ubiquitous as the scrawny dogs roaming everybody's property. The mere fact that Ree has been seen talking to the sheriff is an immediate strike against her.

But she has no choice. Defying the implicit rules that govern every aspect of life in these hills, Ree stoically sets out on foot  any sort of vehicle being an unimagined luxury  and determines to wrest information from people who'd just as soon spit on her. Blood ties don't amount to much, and relying on the significance of an extended family bond is a waste of time.

Ree has one ally, an uncomplicated gal pal named Gail (Lauren Sweetser), who inevitably arrives with her baby in tow. Some other folks are indifferent; many are short-tempered and hostile, like the scruffy, coke-sniffing Teardrop (John Hawkes), who radiates menace with every word and gesture.

Teardrop is Ree's father's brother ... her uncle.

The situation escalates from bad to worse; a flinty bail bondsman visits long enough to spell out the inevitable, and Ree has done little but provoke everybody she has contacted. Her plight seems absolutely and utterly hopeless, her persistence little more than an invitation to be beaten, raped or killed outright.

We can't imagine how this situation could be resolved, and yet we're irrevocably hooked: hoping for some sort of miracle that will help Ree triumph, because she deserves it so badly. And yet we realize, just as emphatically, that any sort of easy answer would cheapen and destroy the authenticity of the story Granik has woven so precisely, and tells so well.

Granik's attention to detail is as fascinating as everything else. Michael McDonough's camera frequently lingers on the debris in each yard, as if to suggest that such bric-a-brac might convey a sense of the people inside.

The film's color palette is somewhat grainy and suffused with gray tones, emphasizing the grime that lingers on everything and everybody.

Ree has a telling conversation, at one point, with an army recruiter; she's drawn by the dangled promise of a $40,000 enrollment bonus. Her pathetic fantasy is heartbreaking; she imagines being able to bring Sonny and Ashlee with her to boot camp, so she can continue to care for them.

The recruiter, while kind, is irritatingly oblivious; he speaks blithely of the underage Ree needing her parents' permission to enlist, and we want to slap him. Can he be so ignorant of his environment, assuming that Ree would even have two parents at home? Once better informed of her situation, the recruiter gently urges Ree to do "the hard thing," by staying home and caring for her family.

The suggestion is true enough  and Ree knows it -— but we still wince at its delivery. The recruiter, obviously well-fed and enjoying a level of personal comfort and security that Ree would kill to share, seems the wrong person to be offering such advice.

Lawrence, still in her teens when this film was made, is mesmerizing; she submerges herself into this part so deeply that we forget the artifice. This isn't a performance; she is Ree. She radiates the bleary exhaustion that comes from too much responsibility at too young an age, and her pluck sometimes slips just enough to reveal the despair beneath. When she cries  whether in frustration, pain or indignant fury  the depth of her emotion leaps from the screen.

Her killer scene, though, comes late in the story: a moment you'll not soon forget.

Winter's Bone was a critical and audience favorite at the recent Sundance Film Festival, where it took two prestigious honors: the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award  a well-deserved acknowledgment of Granik and Rosellini's meticulously crafted script  and the Grand Jury Prize in drama.

This film is so far removed from soulless, bombastic crap such as Killers and Marmaduke that it shouldn't even be regarded as the same medium. Winter's Bone has the same pedigree  the primarily unknown cast, the carefully constructed atmosphere of authenticity, the memorable script shaped by a skilled director  that made The Hurt Locker such a similarly welcome alternative to Hollywood fare last year.

I rather doubt Granik's film will go on to similar success  it's awfully hard to watch, and its rewards are subtle  but this much is certain: If Lawrence doesn't get an Oscar nod for her starring performance, there's no justice in this world.

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