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Film's intensity cuts to the bone

Posted: September 1, 2011 - 2:29pm

“Winter’s Bone”
Winter’s Bone Productions
1 hour, 40 minutes

With fall upon us, and the silly, albeit fun, season behind, I decided, this week, to check out an intensely serious film I missed when it made the Awards Season rounds last year. “Winter’s Bone,” is a dark drama that hits home and leaves you a little shaken, though unlike other gritty independent films I’ve seen, not disturbed.

Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly, played by up-and-comer, and Oscar nominee, Jennifer Lawrence, has a heavy load to carry. Her mother, lost to mental illness, is no help to her in raising her two siblings, and her father, a local meth manufacturer, has disappeared.

In fact, Jessup Dolly was on bail when he went missing, a detail that becomes very important to Ree when the local sheriff arrives looking for her father. Apparently Jessup put up the family land, including the house, as collateral with the bail-bondsman, and if he doesn’t show up for trial in a week, Ree and family are homeless. This sets off a determined search by Ree to learn the whereabouts of Jessup — a search that will take her into the worst parts of her already depressed rural community. There’s a secret that everyone but Ree seems to know, and when she confronts the Milton clan, local heavyweights in the crystal meth business, Ree realizes her own life may be in danger. Her only hope is in the intervention of her coke-addicted uncle, Teardrop, whose conflicted loyalties make him almost as dangerous as the Miltons. But Ree doesn’t have the option to back down, not when the future of everyone she loves is at stake.

“Winter’s Bone” succeeds on several levels, despite its muted and depressing look, and its muted and depressing characters. For one, it seems relatable, even to someone like me, whose experience with the drug world is exactly nil. That’s because, despite the trappings, this isn’t a drug movie. It’s a movie about the clannish suspicious nature of backwoods societies. It’s also about the intense loyalty and generosity that goes along with that. It’s a kind of grim, hard-set “we take care of our own,” attitude.

The movie takes place in the Ozarks, but really, it could be North Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, or even deep Kasilof, for that matter. Anyone who’s lived in a rural community, or knows people who live off the radar, will recognize the characters in the film.

“Winter’s Bone” also succeeds because of the writing, the dialogue especially creating that familiar, real-world feel of the movie. There’s a scene where Ree, desperate for money, decides that joining the army might be a way out of her family’s dire straits. As I watched the recruiter run through her options, eventually making it clear that her role as provider for the family would rule out military service, at least at this point in Ree’s life, I thought, “this could just as easily be a scene with a kid from Nikiski.” I don’t know if the guy playing the recruiter is an actor or not, but I’d be willing to bet he’s not. It was just one of many scenes that feels utterly authentic.

Probably the biggest asset for this film, however, is the acting, and most of that is on the shoulders of two performers. One, John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, has been around for a long time, though rarely playing a role of this size. The character actor has been working for more than 25 years, mostly in independent films, but I remember first taking notice of him as the unassuming liquor store clerk who gets into an abrupt and wildly violent gunfight with George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.” Hawkes is a very good actor and has proved it with a quarter century of character roles. I’d love to see him take on larger roles in larger films.

The other major force in the film is Jennifer Lawrence, whose Ree drives all the action of the movie. Lawrence is drab and dour in the movie, and plays the gritty part so well that pundits were shocked to see the bright and beautiful teen who showed up to the Oscar ceremony. The steely determination required of the performance would have been difficult to pull off for even a seasoned actress, the subtle desperation just peeking through her facade.

I was very impressed with Lawrence in this film, as I was with her take on a young Mystique in the recent “X-Men” prequel, “First Class.” I have no qualms about her being cast as the lead in next year’s big trilogy hopeful, “The Hunger Games.”

For those who don’t know, “Games” is a trio of young adult novels, sort of. The writing style and character focus are certainly for teens, but the content and dystopian plot are pretty high-level. In a not-so-distant future, the U.S.A. has become Panem, broken into 13 districts, each distinctive for the resource they provide to The Capitol — a kind of representative dictatorship. When a revolution goes bad, District 13 is obliterated and the other 12 are forced to submit two of their children, once a year, to a televised gladiatorial style contest called “The Hunger Games,” where only one survivor is allowed. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a competitor and potential lightning rod. It’s a big role, and risky adaptation, considering the guaranteed PG-13 rating despite the intense violence in the books, but if “Bone” is any indication, Lawrence should be more than up to the task.

“Winter’s Bone” is a quiet film chock full of fully-realized, realistic characters. It’s marketed as a thriller, and at times thrilling it is, but the real magic is in some amazing, restrained acting and a script that never panders and never really judges it’s characters.

Grade: A

“Winter’s Bone” is rated R for intense scenes, brief violence, and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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