Sunday, September 19, 2010

Film Review #234: Winter's Bone
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

“Oh, lord!” mutters the girl under her breath. She climbs out of the pick-up with a suddenly impatient sigh, using the same inflection as innumerable, usually much older women before her who have followed their men, their fathers, their sons – this one is her uncle – into some dive to haul them out. Once inside, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is already practiced at the right balance between deference – she locates him across the crowded, smokey room and stays far enough away that she’s not interrupting – and no-nonsense demand – one jerk of her head toward the door. Pausing a single beat to show he’s the one deciding, Teardrop (John Hawkes) follows her outside.

One of our best character actors, John Hawkes is easily matched in every scene they share by Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence, about whom you’ll be hearing a lot and, if there’s any justice, part of that will include an Oscar nomination. Ree and Teardrop were supposed to be looking for her father, Jessup Dolly, who’s vanished, missing his court date. Teardrop doesn’t get much farther than she does. We never see Jessup, except in an old photo album snap with Ree’s mother, taken when they were kids themselves and Ree’s mother is almost unrecognizable as the vacant-eyed woman Ree now gently tends.

Jessup is a meth cooker, “known for,” as Ree tells a neighbor who tries to convince her Jessup burned up in a meth lab explosion, “knowing what he’s doing and not making any bad batches.” His disappearance has put his place – a rickety log cabin accessorized with a great deal of plastic and what must have been an expensive trampoline in the yard for the kids – along with his 100-year-old timberlands, at risk for bail forfeiture. At this point in the story where she retrieves Teardrop from the tavern, Ree is pretty sure her father’s dead, but she has to prove that in order to stave off the bail bondsman. Eventually she retrieves the proof from a fetid pond, with the help of a chainsaw and two crones right out of MacBeth.

Women grow old fast in the raggedy backwoods of southwestern Missouri, the region we know as the Ozarks. Ree has a little sister named Ashley Dawn, 6, and a 12-year-old brother named Sonny – like many of the cast, drawn from the local people during the on-location shoot – to whom she’s teaching survival skills equally. So they both learn how to shoot a gun, hunt squirrels and skin and gut them and make a stew. (This scene, in which Ree tells Sonny there are things he’ll have to get over when he balks at gutting the squirrel, nicely foreshadows what the two crones’ insist she must get over too.) But Ree’s friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), who’s already got a baby and doesn’t ask her husband why when he won’t let her take the truck, tells Ree, “It’s different when you’re married.” Writer-director Debra Granik, who adopted this film from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same title, avoids adding melodrama about how it is that Gail shows up with Baby Ned and the truck one day at Ree’s cabin, having left the husband and his head-banger music, but it’s easy to imagine there was some. Ree’s own single attempt to get away is demolished by a patient, practical Army recruiter who explains, in unusually knowing terms, that it will actually be braver for Ree to remain at home.

Lest we start thinking about the people in Winter’s Bone in terms overly mythic or picturesque, I should say that this film is as good a study as you’re likely to find of how come most kids into drugs most anyplace and right here in Syracuse too aren’t about to snitch, and how come whole communities remain implacably against the law’s perceived intrusion. When Teardrop tells Thump, a distantly-related patriarch – played by another non-actor who goes by the nickname “Stray Dog” and evidently got to wear his own biker vest for the part – that Jessup “went against our ways,” he’s not talking about Jessup’s illegal activities. And when Teardrop, in one of the final scenes, suddenly says he knows who killed his little brother, about the only people you don’t suspect – outside Jessup’s own household – are the musicians at a house-party Ree visits, who provide much of the film’s marvelous Ozark music.

Marideth Sisco, whose own busy summer festival schedule probably has rivaled the director’s, is the singer at this house-party with her band, the Davis Creek Rounders. Sisco also sings many of the songs in the film – “High on a Mountain,” “Farther Along,” “Fair and Tender Maidens,” “Missouri Waltz,” and “Teardrop’s Ballad: Bred and Buttered.” Twice Ree reminds the sheriff that she’s “a Dolly, bred and buttered,” indicating a depth of loyalty and identity that we learn as the tale unfolds can go either way.

This review appears in the September 9, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Winter’s Bone” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Friday, September 10. Both the DVD and the soundtrack come out on October 26.