Tuesday, July 6, 2010

True Grit - Winter’s Bone

Throughout the history of the American frontier – whether that frontier was the mountains of Western Massachusetts, the Kentucky backwoods, or Great Plains sod homesteads – there have always been isolated outposts of insular, clannish kith and kin living together, often in ignorance and poverty, distrusting outsiders, and dealing harshly with anyone who might betray a very strict code of fidelity. We readily think of the James gang or stories set in Appalachia. We picture shabby shacks with junk-filled yards, bedraggled men hunting squirrels and possum, teenage mothers, and smoke-filled taverns full of stolid, hard men.

That this kind of place so much a part of America’s past is still a part of its present is a fascinating side of Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell (author of Woe to Live On, the basis of Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil). That this setting is so finely depicted is one of the many strengths of this superb film. Opening with simple images of a junk-filled yard, two children playing on a trampoline outside a gray cabin, and bare trees along a desolate road, the film employs a minimalist grittiness that always feels real.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, whose soft tones guard an indomitable determination in the face of adversity, takes care of her mentally ill mother and her little brother and sister on a dirt-poor plot of land where supper is fried squirrel meat or the fixings for “a good stew” donated by a kind neighbor.

It’s a blessing to Ree that her low-life, meth-lab-running father is not around to help or hinder. Ironically, Ree needs to find him. He’s due in court, he’s gone missing, and Ree could lose the family property to the bail bondsman. Although Lawrence never delivers a line above a worn-out monotone, her determination and love for her meager family are made clear in her terse delivery and her yearning eyes. Ree Dolly’s quest for a man she’d rather not find takes her to junky homesteads, a raucous saloon, and a vast stockyard where grim, hard backwoods men and women cling to their blind loyalties.

In a notable supporting performance, John Hawkes, oddly named Teardrop, plays Ree’s haggard, drug-snorting good-for-nothing uncle, his face bearded and drawn with drug use. At first he refuses to help his niece, but when he sees how low his so-called compatriots go to keep Ree from unearthing any incriminating connections, he responds to his blood ties. Well aware that his life isn’t worth a plug nickel, he is even willing to stand off the crooked Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) in a possible showdown on a dark roadway, when, impressed by Ree's true grit, he becomes just as determined as she is to complete her quest. In this wonderfully staged scene, Granik frames gripping desperation in a sideview mirror. Later, sitting on Ree’s porch with his brother’s banjo, perhaps Teardrop has found a sliver of hope in a bleak life.

With isolated backwoods settings and characters like the fat-bellied gang leader Thump Milton, played by Ronnie Hill as a merciless son of a bitch, and with the near showdown between Teardrop and Sheriff Baskin, the film holds elements of the Western genre, but it never succumbs to good guy/bad guy, shootout melodrama. Granik's tight direction delivers a naturalistic story of a young woman’s endeavors to keep her family together, and the script by Granik and Anne Rosellini preserves the dialogue of Woodrell's novel that so skillfully evokes setting and culture. As stark as its title, Winter’s Bone never strays from its harsh reality. Thus, the film’s consistent realism and its skillful performances make Ree’s journey a wonderfully memorable one.

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