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If you are going to adapt a novel by author Daniel Woodrell, the self-coined writer of “country noir”, you better make sure you get the look and feel of the Missouri Ozarks correct, no matter how dark, dirty, or devastating that hellish journey may be. I haven’t seen Ang Lee’s attempt to do just that with Ride with the Devil, but after catching Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone at the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, as well as listening to co-writer and producer Anne Rosellini afterwards, I can be pretty sure she did everything necessary to make her film true to the source. Not only did this indie duo want to get the aesthetic right, showing the beat down lifestyle of meth cooks and the shattered lives left in its wake, they wanted the real residents of the town they filmed in to accept them, trusting that the depiction would be as authentic and non-exploitative as possible. Knowing they would stick as strictly to the novel as possible, copies were made available to the community—out near Springfield and Branson, MO—and after an almost three year process were finally able to make the movie they set out to accomplish, on the land and in the households of Missourians willing to open their doors.

Described by most as a western, the main focal point is a seventeen-year old girl named Ree. Taking care of her young brother and sister, along with a nonverbal mother trapped inside her own head, the absence of her father is nothing compared to the fact he posted the house for bond in order to leave jail. With a court date soon approaching, Ree and her helpless wards will be homeless if he isn’t in attendance. So, she takes it upon herself to venture out and find the elusive Jessup, asking his old drug buddies and anyone else who might have seen him in the past few weeks. While almost everyone asked is related by blood somewhere down the line, that sacred bond is only worth something if the guilty party hasn’t broken the collective’s laws. Anyone Ree comes into contact with either lies to her face, pleads the fifth, or ignores her altogether. The lone resident unwilling to forget about her father—not because of love or familial obligation to him, but for her siblings to remain under a roof—she soon finds her unwavering resolve dragging her farther and farther from the truth. Standing tall within this desolate wasteland, Ree will not give up until the house is theirs again or they’re kicked off and forced to part ways.

Very reminiscent in subject matter to Frozen River’s portrayal of one mother doing everything necessary to keep her family from starving, Winter’s Bone utilizes the many tenuous connections between resident factions and the sheriff. Something has happened to Jessup, you can tell by the demeanor of those she questions and the brutality both threatened and used to prevent her from finding out too much. If their leader Thump and his men sought justice for some transgression, they can never come clean. While a dead body would be enough to dissolve the bond and keep the Dolly family in their house, evidence of murder would only kick up internal bad blood, necessitating Ree’s uncle Teardrop to seek his own form of retribution. They reside in a cult of stern stoicism, divulging only information needed to those who need it. Questions are frowned upon here, causing much more trouble than help. But while most feel Jessup made his own bed and to hell with the children he left behind, others can’t lay it to rest. Trust becomes key and whether or not the truth can be uncovered, enough to help Ree stay afloat without bringing the law in to tear everything they’ve worked for apart, the crucial decsion.

This dramatic thriller is so tightly wound that you become enraptured in the mystery, slowly discovering that murder is common practice, preserving the greater good. Each resident was born into this life, they’ve been brought up with farmhand mentalities, learning how to cook, shoot, skin, and survive on the land. It’s a community that thrives on an underground economy of drug manufacturing, rendering any communication with the law a violation of code and punishable by extreme measures. They’ve all come to realize the suffering of life, growing fast and self-sufficient at a young age; Ree says herself that she’s a Dolly to the core, taking her knowledge and imparting it on Sonny and Ashlee in case her search for answers leads so deep that all ways out are sealed. The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is afraid of these unflinching outlaws, where even the women inside are hardened and protective of their men, standing as sentries to relay messages and also inflict lessons. Seeing Dale Dickey in a role like Merab, tough and feisty in hers and her people’s way of life, comes as a welcome surprise. As do the rest of those leaning on both sides of the fence to help Ree, including Sheryl Lee and Lauren Sweetser amongst many others. But besides the wonderfully constructed tale of courage in the face of monsters living next-door—winning the Grand Jury prize and a screenwriting award at Sundance—the power wielded by the film’s two leads is immeasurable.

Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic as Ree, showing the mettle a girl at seventeen can have, making each and every move with the thought of her siblings and mother close to heart. Fearless in her quest and willing to say and do things that will only get her beaten and possibly killed, the strength of the film can only rise as high as she’s able to take it. To think that the filmmakers actually auditioned an Olsen twin for the role is unbelievable; thankfully they found their Ree, an actress possessing the tools to seem natural out in the country, while also projecting a youthful innocence inherent to her age. But this character can only go so far without the help of someone demanding respect within the town, a person who makes Thump and his men take pause. Teardrop is a force to reckon with and one all hope to avoid confrontation with if the truth of what’s happened to his brother ever gets out. John Hawkes has always shined, but never been this imposing onscreen. Rosellini says he was excited from day one, getting dirty, weathered, tattooed and angry. Hawkes’ Teardrop is the epitome of this Ozark town and, like his niece, willing to do what’s needed to survive. Where that fervor ultimately leads is unknown, as is the final chapter of the Dolly family’s conclusion to the mystery of Jessup. But that’s okay; we don’t need manufactured exchanges or finite answers. Winter’s Bone is an authentic view inside a world most of us will only hear about, a place of tough choices and rough lives where the human soul is worth just as much as it is here.

Winter’s Bone 8/10

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[1] Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in WINTER’S BONE, directed by Debra Granik. Photo Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski
[2] Ree and Teardrop (Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes): Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as Teardrop in WINTER’S BONE, directed by Debra Granik. Photo Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski