Sunday, August 29, 2010

Winter’s Bone (2010) *****

Well, y’all just need to see this one. You may have heard that “Winter’s Bone” is bleak or hopeless, but it really isn’t. It’s dark, but that’s different. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the fact is, this movie has a hero and a more or less happy ending.

“Winter’s Bone” is a noir mystery set in the backwoods Ozarks. The story follows a 17-year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played with astonishing power by Jennifer Lawrence. (If Lawrence doesn’t get an Oscar nomination out of this role, then something is seriously wrong.) Ree’s dad is a methamphetamine cooker, and her mom is completely disabled by some sort of psychotic depression. The raising of herself and her two younger siblings has fallen squarely on Ree’s young shoulders, forcing her to drop out of school in order to chop enough wood, shoot enough squirrels, and basically scrape the bottom of the barrel enough to keep her family going. It seems like she might be strong enough to actually pull it off until the sheriff comes around to explain that her no-account daddy put the family home up for bond, then skipped town. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, the house and land will go to the county, and the family will be homeless. In Ree’s meth-head neck of the woods, you simply don’t talk to the cops, so Ree uses what little she knows about her dad’s potential whereabouts to go looking for him herself. Since this is the backwoods, the quest involves visiting a series of relatives and distant relatives, each of whom is scarier than the last, and none of whom is happy to see the little girl with the wayward daddy. One woman asks Ree, “Don’t you have men to do this?” Of course, Ree doesn’t. All she has is herself, which is a lot more than you might think.

I came into this movie expecting a really depressing, naturalistic story that would be hard to watch. I was thrilled to find myself watching a suspenseful mystery that contains at least a glimmer of hope. Ree Dolly is one of the best movie characters I have seen in years. She can be stoic and reticent, as you would expect from someone who grew up where and how she did. She can also be very kind and gentle when caring for her mom and siblings. Some of the film’s best scenes are when she is taking the kids to school while drilling them on their lessons, or teaching them how to cook, clean a squirrel, or shoot a gun.

Ree does live in a very rough world, though. The setting is extremely rural, where everyone has pigs, cows, and old cars in the yard, and everyone is related in some way. You would think these kinships would bind the community together so that people would help Ree and her family, and some people do help some, but unfortunately the community is fractured by the methamphetamine trade. It seems everyone Ree knows is using it, dealing it, or both. Most rural communities have a strong religious vein in them, but due to the meth trade, it seems the only religion in Ree’s neighborhood is silence. Ree’s stoicism and resignation in this world is heartbreaking. When she teaches her brother to clean a squirrel, he pulls out a handful of guts and asks, “Do we eat this part?” Ree replies, “Not yet.” Later, her uncle snorts some meth in front of her and asks, “You gotten the taste?” Once again, Ree’s answer is, “Not yet.” How poignant is it that at seventeen Ree has already had so many disappointments that she can no longer rule out even the vilest of possibilities? The best she can come up with is, “Not yet.”

I grew up in a rural area, and I live in the Ozarks now, and I feel comfortable saying that “Winter’s Bone” gets its characters pretty much exactly right. That’s not to say, however, that these characters should be considered representative of rural people in general, any more than “The Godfather” is representative of Italians. One thing that isn’t apparent in the film, and this may be my only criticism of the movie, is that even though the meth trade is pervasive where Ree lives, there are probably plenty of decent, hard-working country people there who have nothing to do with meth. Ree, however, wouldn’t know those people. Because her family is known to be mixed up in drugs, law-abiding people wouldn’t associate with her family or let their kids be friends with Ree and her siblings. Ree and her family are in dire straights because they have no one but criminals and drug addicts to turn to.

People are going to bring their politics to this movie, but this is not a political movie. This is a story of real people who are too complex to yield to ideological judgments. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) initially seems like a badass, abusive meth-head, and he is those things. He also turns out to have some genuine nobility, as does Merab (Dale Dickey), the rough-hewn wife of the local meth-dealing patriarch. A lot of people will want to know where the government is in this story. Why hasn’t Child Protective Services come in to save these children? Part of the answer is that, as screwed up as these people are, they have too much pride to turn to the government for help. With a long tradition of moonshine and illegal drugs behind them, these are a people who have grown accustomed to shunning agents of the government. The other issue is that a government solution would almost certainly involve splitting Ree’s family up, sending the kids to foster care, and she makes it clear in one scene that that is not acceptable.

In the end, winter throws Ree a bone, which she dearly deserves. Her mom is still mentally ill, her life is still hard, but for a little while longer, at least, Ree can continue to say, “Not yet.”

5 stars out of 5

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