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Film Review

Winter's Bone

There are many different Americas, but one that has long been a source of fascination, folk music, and literature, are the Appalachians and the Ozarks. These regions are filled with lovely forested hills and hollows that are the home of poor whites, many reclusive, suspicious, sometimes hostile, but simply trying to survive. It is mostly a closed society, with the family the most important focus of their culture, and blood ties are everything. Debra Granik has co-written and directed a riveting mystery set in the Missouri Ozarks, about a 17 year old girl, Rees Dolly, who is rearing her two younger siblings, and wants to find her missing father. Her father disappeared a few weeks earlier, but not before pledging their small log cabin and acreage as a bond for his appearance at trial. The sheriff stops in to see if Rees knows where her father is, and warns her that unless he appears, their house will be seized and the family forced out. Rees has been completely responsible for her much younger sister and brother, cooking, chopping firewood, and more, because her mother is mentally ill, and can only sit and watch. So Rees begins to look for her father.

It is the beginning of winter, overcast, chilly, with muted grayish colors. She walks the roads, the fields, the hollows, asking neighbors if anyone has seen her dad. Everyone lives in ramshackle houses, with dead cars and aging farm equipment scattered around, guarded by lots of dogs. Yet in this poverty, there are lovely scenes of everyday life that clearly were shot on location. These people are poor, life is hard, but they are fiercely independent and proud. No one has seen her father, or at least will say so. She goes to see her uncle, a mean, wild looking, coke snorting guy loading his pistol, but he says he has no idea. His wife is clearly frightened of him but tries to help Rees. She walks and walks, and finally goes to see a man in a hill top house that all are intimidated by. His wife, who looks as if she stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photograph, tells Rees that she better leave, and that her husband will not talk to her. Rees is increasingly desperate, driven by the knowledge that if the house is taken, her little sister and brother will be placed either with foster parents or in some sort of facility. But she has a lot of courage and determination. A very creepy acquaintance of her father tells Rees that he can show her what happened to her father. She gets into his truck, and he drives her to a burnout building that housed a meth lab that had exploded. He says her father died in that building and burned up. Unsure if this is true, Rees goes back to her mother, and in a very poignant scene, tearfully begs her mother for help. "Can you help me? Can you help me this one time"? But her mother is beyond any comprehension, and sits there mute. Rees decides to revisit someone, and the story begins to turn into a more malevolent and frightening tale.

Winter's Bone is tense, very well edited, yet a quiet powerful film. There is very little music, mostly light banjo plucking, sometimes background folk tunes. Unforgettable is a lovely scene in a bar with a real backwoods group playing banjos and singing traditional folk songs, such as If I Were a Tiny Sparrow, captivating a room full of hard, tough men and women. It is a timeless scene, and I could have watched it for hours. The entire movie was filmed on location in the Ozarks, and it shows, in the best way. Granik looks, unflinching, at the grim, desperate lives of these people, against the backdrop of the region's great natural beauty. The cinematography is wonderful, with many memorable scenes, including the little sister and brother playing amongst big round hay bales. Another is a lyric scene of Rees teaching her brother to shoot squirrels, then skinning and cooking them. The acting is simply marvelous. Rees, played by a 19 year old Jennifer Lawrence, is outstanding, and easily the best performance I have ever seen from someone so young. Everyone else seemed to be non actors, locals, but it wasn't clear from the credits who was local or not. I loved every minute of this film. Winter's Bone is a great film with a good story, in a uniquely American culture, and it made me proud. Winter's Bone will stay with you for a long time, and will surely be a major contender in several categories of Oscars. As usual, try to see this in a theater.

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