Thursday, December 09, 2010

Movie review: "Winter's Bone"

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt
Directed by Debra Granik

Let’s be honest: the darkly effective, small-budgeted thriller “Winter’s Bone” doesn’t serve as the greatest promotional tool for the Missouri Department of Tourism. But it can’t really be argued that the movie takes unfair liberties with its depiction of the backwoods residents in the Missouri Ozarks seemingly consumed by the production of methamphetamine.

Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the screenplay by director Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini is sharply crafted in establishing the mood and atmosphere where the characters reside, but avoids bludgeoning you over the head with their drug-infested lives. Interestingly enough, for a movie so steeped in conversation about drugs, there’s very little use or production of it taking place on screen.

But lest the film sound like spending a couple of hours in unpleasant company, not every character inhabiting the story has drugs on their mind. In fact, the main character, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a star-making performance) wants nothing to do with them, even though they’ve likely been surrounding her for all of her 17 years of life. Ree is the entry point into the film, as she’s had to take on the task of becoming the main caretaker for her two younger siblings, with a mother rendered practically useless by a debilitating depression, and an absentee father.

The fact that her father is gone isn’t really a bad thing for Ree, as he’s been a longtime meth cooker, who has apparently skipped bail as the movie begins. But his disappearance has placed an added burden on the family, as he has used the house as collateral for his bail. Ree is told by the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) if her dad doesn’t make his court date in a week, the family will lose the house. The determined teen tells the sheriff she will find him, launching her on a journey among suspicious neighbors and extended family members.

Along the way, she gets varied degrees of assistance, but mostly runs into brick walls from people who would rather she leave well enough alone. But with the thought of homelessness (not to mention the possible breakup of her small family unit) weighing on her mind, Ree pushes forward to find her father, possibly putting her life in peril during the process.

The pacing of the film is a little sluggish at times, but great mileage is gained by the authentic location shooting (in Taney and Christian County) and moody cinematography from Michael McDonough. Granik’s cast, a mix of professionals and first-time actors, provide just the right amount of authenticity to the material, with John Hawkes, as Ree’s dyspeptic uncle, Teardrop, a real standout. His character, although an addict who is at first resentful of Ree’s mission, has an itching desire to know what has become of his brother.

But the film’s success generally depends on Lawrence, as her character’s steely determination drives the story forward. Having only had a few small roles leading to her starring role here, Lawrence is extremely impressive as a teen considering the Army as a chance to give herself a new life (and her family some much-needed money). In her expressive face that has to hide a lot of the fear and uncertainty she’s feeling, Lawrence captures Dee’s desire to get at the truth, no matter the consequences for her. In one standout scene, she pleads with her basically unresponsive mother to tell her what to do, only to realize it's her own instincts that have gotten her this far. In a chilling environment that has sapped most of the life force from those that surround her, Ree’s desire to do right by her family is a true spot of warmth.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.)

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