Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions, R)

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One of the great strengths of Winter’s Bone is that it constantly surprises you not only with unexpected twists in the story but also with the complexity of the moral and ethical decisions made by the characters in the film.

I saw about 70 films at the Seattle International Film Festival, but one clearly stood out from the pack: Winter’s Bone, a crime thriller set in the Missouri Ozarks. And that’s not just a homer call even though the film is Missouri through and through—this is a great film and deserves all the accolades it has already won including the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance.

Filmed in the Missouri Ozarks, the screenplay is adapted by director Debra Granik and producer Anne Rossellini from the Daniel Woodrell novel (an author from Springfield, Mo.) The cast and crew went to great lengths to ground the film in the realities of present-day Ozarks life, resulting in a movie that respects and understands both the achievements and hardships of the culture.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is still in high school but has already assumed the responsibilities of an adult such as running the household and caring for her younger siblings (Ashlee Thompson and Isaiah Stone) and her invalid mother. It’s not easy, but she’s managing until the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) arrives with some unsettling news: her father was arrested for cooking meth, put up their house and property to secure his bail, then skipped out on his court appearance. In order to keep the family together, Ree must track him down (a dangerous quest bringing her repeatedly in conflict with her rural community’s code of silence).

You can feel the chill of winter and sense the danger as Ree sets about trying to gather information about her father’s whereabouts. Since most of the people who might be able to help her live partly or totally outside the law these inquiries are not appreciated and one person reminds Ree of something she already knows—asking too many questions is “a real good way to get 'et by hogs.” The threat of violence is always present and when that threat turns to reality, it’s shocking because it feels so real and quite the opposite of the aestheticized violence typical of television cop shows.

One of the great strengths of Winter’s Bone is that it constantly surprises you, not only with unexpected twists in the story, but also with the complexity of the moral and ethical decisions made by the characters. This film does not judge its characters, but allows the viewer into their world putting the characters in a sympathetic light.

There’s not a weak player in the cast, but this is Ree’s story and Jennifer Lawrence delivers a breakout performance in the role (quite a feat considering that at age 19 she’s already won several acting awards including the Marcello Mastroianni Award in 2008 for her performance Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain). Lawrence is entirely believable as the 17-year-old Ree who can be tender with her younger siblings (telling them “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”) then switch gears into a kind of stubborn determination which enables her to persist in a quest which would frighten any grown man.

John Hawkes (Sol Star in Deadwood and Richard Swersey in Me and You and Everyone We Know) delivers a nuanced performance as Ree’s uncle Teardrop who embodies the conflicting loyalties of the community: as family he’s obligated to help Ree but as a participant in the local drug culture he’s obligated to maintain the code of silence. Other standouts include Lauren Sweetser (a student at Missouri State at the time of filming) as Ree’s friend Gail and Dale Dickey (Patty the Daytime Hooker on My Name is Earl) as Merab, wife of the local crime boss who seems much more dangerous than he is. 

In case I haven’t convinced you yet, there are two other reasons to see Winter’s Bone: first-rate cinematography by Michael McDonough using the RED digital camera and a wonderful soundtrack including performances by Missouri singer and folklorist Marideth Sisco. The music is as well-integrated into the story as in any film I’ve seen recently and a soundtrack album is in the works. Watch http://maridethsisco.com/ for details. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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