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20100908-winters-bone-a-more-human-hero-by-jeffrey-overstreetWhen was the last time you saw a big-screen hero kill, gut, and cook a squirrel?

Be prepared for that if you see Winter’s Bone. I wasn’t.

Let’s not even talk about the chainsaw, which figures prominently at the end of the film.

Let’s focus on Ree Dolly, the seventeen year-old girl “bred and buttered” among a secretive, criminal, meth-addicted community deep in the woods of the Ozark Mountains. For her, squirrel-skinning is the stuff of survival. And what she does to protect, teach, and raise her younger siblings defines her as hero of courage, tenacity, and selflessness.

Adapted by co-writer and director Debra Granik from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is a harrowing film. Its insular culture of brutal crooks, where women become zombie-like minions ruled by men, and men are monsters ruled by the methamphetamine they cook and snort, would seem implausible if it weren’t so particular. It’s the kind of shadowy wilderness that myths are made of. You half-expect to meet the Blair Witch in them there trees.

In her ramshackle home, with a wary eye on her dangerous neighbors, Ree teaches her young siblings how spell ‘HOUSE’, how to do math, how to make deer stew, and other essentials of survival.

Where is their mother? She’s in the back room, useless, buried deep beneath layers of trauma. Their father? Jessup is missing. Jailed for meth-cooking, he got out by putting up pretty much everything for bond—including the house that shelters his family.

So Ree shoulders the responsibility, caring for her brother and sister with a ferocious sense of duty. Moviegoers looking for a sibling bond this powerful would have to go back to Jeff Nichols’s 2007 film Shotgun Stories or Hirozaku Koreeda’s 2004 film Nobody Knows.

Ree is hanging on by her fingernails. Jessup hasn’t shown up for his court date, and she has no idea where he is. If she doesn’t find him soon, the law will take the family’s home, leaving the Dollys at the mercy of their cruel community. You can feel that darkness, like the devil himself, seething and laughing behind the closed doors, while Ree begs for help and for answers.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Ree has earned quite an ovation. Many predict we’re witnessing the arrival of a great actress. Perhaps. Winter’s Bone catches her in that fleeting stage of metamorphosis. Sometimes she’s a baby-faced Girl Scout; others, she’s pouty and smart, like Rene Zellweger’s younger, tougher sister; and in moments of confrontation she’s as fearsome as Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, taking on monsters to protect the small and the vulnerable.

Standing between Ree and the truth are the community’s women. I was surprised that none of them were witches. With all of this backwoods “toil and trouble,” we might expect some “bubble bubble.” Asking the clan queen for permission to meet the head cattleman, Ree’s told “He’s got no need to talk to you.” Ree responds, “At least some of our blood’s the same. Ain’t that supposed to mean something?”

Apparently not.

But Ree finds a scrap of conscience in Teardrop, her drug-addicted uncle. Played brilliantly by John Hawkes, Teardrop’s a monster staggering between sadness and rage. When his wife asks him for information, Teardrop says “Shut up.” When she asks again, he says, “I said ‘Shut Up’ once already with my mouth.”

This Missouri timberland is more than a backdrop. It’s a haunted, primal wilderness, and the residents seem a part of it, their voices as rugged as the gravel roads, and their faces as gnarled as the wind-blasted trees. (The adorable young actress playing Ree’s youngest sibling seems picture-perfect because she actually lives in the house that serves as the stage for Ree’s family.)

Garret Dillahunt is smartly cast as a scornful cop. I’ll bet Granik knew, when she included him, that he’d be recognized for his appearances in No Country for Old Men and The Road, two Cormac McCarthy adaptations about humankind’s devolution at the end of the world.

Most movies of such cultural crisis will call up a hero who can, with sharp shooting, cleverness, and bravado overcome the villains. The hero’s motivations and convictions are usually forgettable—the story’s just an excuse for wild stunts and spectacle. Thoughtful storytelling and character development are a surprising bonus if they occur at all.

But Ree’s a far more human hero, distinguished by her selfless courage. Her actions are about identity, not excitement. Nothing here happens for the sake of a gratuitous thrill. Everything is rooted in Ree’s love for her family.

So, while commercial movies and American television have conditioned me to expect resolution through a climactic explosion of violence, or a fairy-tale deliverance (through, say, an unexpected romance from a kind-hearted lawman), I was drawn to the edge of my seat because Winter’s Bone is something rare—a story of remarkable integrity.

I had no idea where it would end up.

Ree’s after something better than vengeance. Unlike most big-screen heroes—and indeed, unlike most American storytellers—she seems to know that violence will make things worse. She’d rather preserve what’s left of her family and strengthen the things that remain. And her last words to her siblings are as beautiful as any declaration of love I’ve ever encountered in a movie.

There is no clean conclusion. Grace is possible, but the devil is still on the prowl, seeking whom he may devour. Ree’s victories are hard-won, few, and tenuous. Those seeking long-term hope will have to look beyond the world’s dark woods.

Listen to the hymn sung over the credits:

When death has come and taken our loved ones,
It leaves our home so lonely and drear,
Then do we wonder why others prosper
Living so wicked year after year….

Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.

(Winter’s Bone arrives on DVD on October 26.)


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