17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, "The Burning Plain") lives in a ramshackle log cabin in Missouri's Ozarks with her catatonic mom, 12 year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and 6 year-old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) and she and the kindness of neighbors is all they've got. Then her jailed dad Jessop's bail bondsman arrives to tell her that he's out, that he hears he's 'cookin' again' and he'd put their house up for collateral in "Winter's Bone."
After springing Vera Farmiga into the big leagues with "Down to the Bone," cowriter/director Debra Granik and her producer/writer partner Anne Rosellini give Jennifer Lawrence an even more impressive breakout platform. Although "Winter's Bone" keeps getting described as a neo noir detective thriller, there is very little 'detecting' going on here as Ree pushes against dangerous boundaries to find her father. Rather this is a character study, not only of Ree, but of a place and way of life, which shows that there is a lot more to what most people think of as 'hillbilly culture' than the stereotype.
We meet Ree as a practical mother hen. She walks down the corridors of a school she no longer attends and looks into classrooms where teens are being instructed on the correct way to hold a baby or practicing with the ROTC for an upcoming Marine show. This is Ree's future - babies and/or the military. Later we see just how dire Ree's circumstances are when she brings Ginger, a horse who hasn't eaten in four days, to Sonya (Shelley Waggener), who comments on the expense of hay. Ree instead asks if she can leave the horse there and Sonya accepts her. Ree leaves in tears. Later, she, Sonny and Ashlee watch as neighbor Connie (Valerie Richards) gives scraps of the deer her husband's butchering to their dogs and Sonny wonders if maybe they might think of giving them some. 'Never ask for what should be offered,' Ree tells him, and sure enough Connie arrives later with a box of provisions to help out.
Things begin to get a little scarier when Ree starts seeking out help, especially as she begins to interact with the men. When she asks her best friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), married with a baby, if she can borrow their truck, Floyd (Cody Brown) says no. 'It's different when you're married,' Gail tells her. When she goes to see Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz), the woman seems to want to help, but then Teardrop (John Hawkes, "Me and You and Everyone We Know"), who we will later learn is Ree's uncle, enters the room and physically threatens her. No one wants Ree asking questions about her dad Jessop. Connie's husband forces her into a pickup to show her what's become of him, but Ree notes the chin-high weeds growing in the burnt out cookhouse and knows it's been like that for quite some time (the sole bit of Sherlocking Ree does here). She pushes further, going to the house of Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), who we can deduce must be the grand poobah of the local meth scene, but she's intercepted by Merab (Dale Dickey), who gives her a hot drink but in no uncertain terms tells her Thump doesn't care to speak to her. 'Ain't you got no men?'
She's further warned by Teardrop, who drops by to swing a bag of crystal beneath her nose and tell her to back off, face facts and sell the mature trees on her property before it's gone. In an affecting seen, Ree begs her mother for help in making this decision, but all she succeeds in getting is eye contact. When Ree isn't working to find dad and fight for the family's survival, she is schooling her younger siblings in spelling, math and squirrel skinning. Her target shooting lesson is so strongly yet naturally couched in firearm safety, it just adds to the impressiveness of Ree's intelligence and ability.
Things take some really interesting turns in the film's third act. Ree is badly beaten for shining a spotlight where she shouldn't, Teardrop proves to have hidden reserves and the balled fist of Ree's female assailant turns into an undercover helping hand - in a very gruesome scene. There are bonds here - among family and among downtrodden women and those who once were. There is history as well, on display in the musical culture this community is steeped in. A banjo is a family heirloom.
Jennifer Lawrence, who could be Rene Zellweger's younger sister, brings a steely, quiet resolve to Ree. She doesn't smile but she's never sullen. She gives Ree such an intensity of spirit that it becomes bigger than her physical self. But John Hawkes's performance is every bit as strong. In fact, he has more of an arc, as Teardrop begins as a scary tweeker then pulls something up from out of his past, notably when he stands down Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt, "The Road"). It is a revelation to see the softer side of the man at film's end and thoroughly believe the character. Dale Dickey, best known as "My Name Is Earl's" middle-aged prostitute Patty, is also notable, making her feelings evident visually when they are not always in sync with what she's saying.
"Winter's Bone" is the first film to win both the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury award and its Waldo Salt screenwriting award (an adaptation of the Daniel Woodrell novel). It is also one of the first films to win that award that seems true to the original festival's spirit in quite some time. This is regional American independent filmmaking without hipster ironies.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teen living in the Ozarks. Her mother is disabled and the girl must take care of her and, also, raise her younger brother and sister. When her meth-cooking father gets arrested, uses their house to post bail, then jumps, Ree learns that her home is in danger of being taken by the law and she must do all she can to protect her family in “Winter’s Bone.”
Director Debra Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, crafts a unique coming of age film centered on a remarkable performance by Jennifer Lawrence as the tenacious Ree Dolly. Ree’s ne’er-do-well dad (never seen) has put her and her tiny family at risk of losing everything. She gets mixed information about her dad’s reported demise and is put in harm’s way when the close-knit, in-bread community accuses her of going to the police. She is rescued by her taciturn uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), and there is a hopeful conclusion to “Winter’s Bone.” However, the gut-wrenching dangers she faces and survives prove to be the draw as Ree protects her family.
Granik uses an assured hand garnering scary, sinister performances from the ruthless locals working to hide their illegal drug production and dealings. Lawrence and Hawke, though, are 3D characters surrounded by the deadly “friends and neighbors.” All the players do a fine job and give good shrift from top to bottom. Techs are excellent for a small budget flick and fit the tone and mood of this fine indy film.
If you enjoy good movie-making, excellent characters and a tightly wrought story then “Winter’s Bone” is the film for you. If you do not care about good story-telling and acting, waste your money and go see “The A-Team.” I give “Bone” a solid B+.
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