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movie review

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) and Teardrop (John Hawkes) in Winter's Bone.Sebastian Mlynarski

Winter's Bone

  • Directed by Debra Granik
  • Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
  • Starring Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes
  • Classification: 14A

Winter's Bone opens with a sweet lullaby and ends with a sprightly banjo chord, but don't be fooled - everything between, including one of the more gruesome scenes in the annals of moviedom, is relentlessly harsh and morally desolate. That's because the plot is as cold as the title and as primal as the setting - the backwoods of Missouri, the Ozarks, a closed society with its own outlaw codes.

This is a world out of time and, despite the trappings of flinty realism, the film too unfolds like an elemental myth from the stormy past - a Greek tragedy driven by dark fates and struggling toward a catharsis.

Here, fate lurks in the blood, and 17-year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) was born with a double dose: Her mother is catatonically depressed, on the scene but lifeless, while her father, the local distiller of crystal meth, is neither present nor accounted for.

Worse, facing criminal charges, he put up the family house as a bond, then promptly skipped bail. Unless he's found, Ree will be homeless, as will the two young siblings who are in her sole care. Providing that care was never easy - the temperature is dropping, fuel is short, food scarce, neighbours only intermittently helpful. But now hard has escalated into near-impossible.

What follows is no mere coming-of-age tale. Girls grow up fast in these parts, and the script (adapted from the Daniel Woodrell novel) makes it clear that Ree's character is already formed. She's smart, she's tough, she's pragmatic. Beneath her toque and dirty parka, she's also as self-contained as the region that bred her, but with a significant difference. Ree has in abundance what most everyone around her lacks: a profound and determined sense of justice.

So this is a quest film on two parallel missions - the girl's actual search to track down the missing father, and her symbolic one to locate in the heart of the community a sense of rightness and decency. However, the laws guiding that heart, both the codified law in the sheriff's office and the unwritten laws of the Ozarks, militate directly and cruelly against her. You can see why her dilemma is the stuff of classic tragedy.

Yet there's nothing theatrical about the style, which wraps the drama in the garb of near-documentary grittiness. The backwoods dialect is pitch-perfect, locals are cast in supporting roles, and Debra Granik's camera scans the rural landscape with an unflinching eye - the ramshackle houses shorn of paint; their yards sculpted with rusted junk; their owners, male and female, schooled in the sullen art of survival, with rifles to bring them meat and, lately, drugs to give them solace.

In this portrait, at least, addiction is a way of life and a cottage industry. Yes, these hillbillies can look clichéd, like frames lifted from Deliverance. At times, this search for justice seems to deal in unjust stereotypes. Then again, since strict realism is not Granik's chief goal, perhaps the stereotypes are better viewed as archetypes, as iconic forces initiating the protagonist's tumble into a violent underworld.

If so, the men are the scary gatekeepers, and Ree's uncle (John Hawkes) is their personification, sporting a teardrop tattoo under his right eye and packing a handgun as unholstered as his temper. To ask him for help is to enter the male domain, where neither goodness nor mercy reside, and where even the bravest girl is foolish to venture.

As for the women, they function like a furious chorus - warning Ree against her journey, even turning violent themselves in order to keep their men's secrets. Still, they offer our stubborn heroine her only faint hope of success, a hope that surfaces in the literal swamp of the climax.

Yes, that's the gruesome scene where the quest ends, in an act generous in spirit but horribly grisly in execution, shot by Granik to give free rein to our own dark imagination. In that swamp, under cover of night, justice isn't so much served as served up - in pieces that are hard to swallow.

Is there anything here to brighten the gloom? Mainly, Ree's determination and Lawrence's performance - a quiet study in the belief that the hardship that informs life need not corrupt it, and that selfless love is a drug worth taking. Or, as a sister says to the children she keeps, "I'd be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain't going anywhere."

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