Mark Reviews Movies

WINTER'S BONE

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Debra Granik

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweester, Isaiah Stone, Ashlee Thompson, Valerie Richards, Ronnie Hall

MPAA Rating: R (for some drug material, language and violent content)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 6/11/10 (limited); 6/18/10 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 17, 2010

There is a system of familial honor that drives Winter's Bone. Trapped together in relatively close proximity in the Missouri Ozarks and by their lower economic class, the film's extended family have no one else to turn to and no one else to blame when things go wrong.

They have been going wrong presumably for years, whenever it was the clan started cooking meth, living outside the law, and distrusting each other almost as much as they do the local sheriff.

Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is part of that system, "bred and buttered," as she puts it. The script by director Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on Daniel Woodrell's novel) contains dialogue with the ring of authenticity—double and triple negatives, dropped consonants, and colloquial turns of phrases like this.

Ree doesn't participate in the drug manufacturing and trade of her kin, but her life at the moment is defined by it. Her dad has been arrested, has a court date coming up, and put up the house for his bond. He's nowhere to be found, and if he's a no-show at his trial, the house will be taken away.

This will not do. Her younger siblings Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) are still children and cannot provide for themselves (Ree teaches them to shoot squirrels, but Sonny has a problem gutting them, a fear, his older sister tells him, he will have to get over). Their mother (Valerie Richards) is ill and not the kind of sickness one can get over in a hurry either. She is nearly catatonic, folding laundry out of habit but unable to make a sound when Ree breaks down and pleads for advice.

Soon into Granik's surely paced and observed story, it becomes clear that Ree's support structure is there. Her neighbors bring food, care for a horse that they haven't been able feed in days, and keep an eye on the goings-on when the law or a stranger arrives. "Don't ask for what ought to be given," Ree tells her little brother, and it's this older, purer sense of the values blood-ties should be and provide that lands her into trouble.

The Dollys' extended family has warped their understanding of values and honor after taking up a life of crime. Ree tries to speak to patriarch Thump (Ronnie Hall) on her investigation into her father's disappearance. Thump only talks to those he needs to talk to, his mouthpiece/wife Merab (Dale Dickey) tells her, and warns her never to come back. When Ree does, Merab makes good on the threat with a coffee mug.

Everybody, it seems, knows about Ree's father. They bring her to a burned-down house where he was last seen. Ree doubts her dad would die in a meth lab explosion; cooking the stuff was maybe the only thing he did well. On the first day of the trial, he doesn't show, and conveniently, his car is discovered, also burned. Someone, maybe everyone, wants Ree and the world to believe her father is dead. Even his brother Teardrop (John Hawkes) recognizes it, although he doesn't believe the stories going around. He suspects murder and doesn't want to know who did it.

All of the family's support is superficial. Ree tells them straightly and repeatedly that without her father, they will lose their means to live. Money, food, and even an offer to raise the younger siblings are one thing, but there is too much at stake, too much history, too much responsibility for such relatively trivial matters. Ree and her immediate family need their father in the flesh, whether it's alive or dead, and they have no intention of aiding her in that. Their way of life is on the line with this one. Better some fail than the whole, even if those few are blameless. Hence, when the neighbors offer to take in Sonny, Ree tells them, "I'd rather we die in a cave than he spend one night under your roof."

The plot offers a series of dead ends for Ree to hit, and it continues as a fool's errand. Things turn slightly better for the girl when Teardrop does an abrupt about-face to help her, establishing himself as the first of a couple problem characters who make quick shifts to move things forward. Ree's futile search, the strength of character it takes for her to continue in the face of defeat, and Lawrence's stoutly subdued performance hold enough sway without the intrusion of other characters and their shaky motivations.

Winter's Bone has genuine urgency in the conflict between the younger Ree's old-fashioned ideas of family and the older generation's newfound awareness of the need to abandon such ideals. Both have the same goal in mind, and it's that struggle for survival that produces the film's tension.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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