Winter's Bone is as quiet as a snake.
As it slithers into our consciousness, we are not sure what danger it embodies. What is hidden in the rural Ozarks of Missouri?
Winter's Bone is a chilling and challenging visit into a remote -- perhaps alien -- world.
It's the story of 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) and her tenacious efforts to keep what remains of her family intact and her home from being taken away.
Her father is absent. He was arrested for cooking meth, and he seems to have jumped bail, leaving his family to fend for itself. Ree has to seek him so that their home might survive, but no one seems to know where he is. She has to go on an Ozark odyssey fraught with danger.
Ree's mother is near-comatose. She is completely unable to take on any responsibility. She doesn't answer when her daughter pleads for advice. Everything falls heavily on the lean shoulders of her daughter.
The embattled Ree tries to keep values alive for her two siblings -- a young boy and an even younger girl. She teaches them how to hunt and cook squirrel; she adamantly warns them not to ever point a rifle at each other; she insists they do their homework; she's kind to animals; and she gives them the creed, "Never ask for what should be given."
She tries to balance personal independence with familial responsibility. In a hardscrabble existence, she tries to pass on positive values.
Director/co-screenwriter Debra Granik reminds me of writer James Agee. In 1936 Agee [who was one of the few great film critics] and photographer Walker Evans traveled to rural Alabama to live with and document the lives of three sharecropper families living in poverty.
Agee and Walker created a haunting, evocative portraiture. Originally assigned the project by Fortune magazine, who didn't like the outcome, Agee and Walker published their work in 1941 as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which now stands as a classic.
Like Agee, Ms. Granik lived with her subjects, which gives her movie a palpable sense of authenticity. Winter's Bone is an amalgam of actors and locals. The young sister was played by Ashley Thompson, who actually lived in the house in which the movie was shot.
The rest of the cast excels. Jennifer Lawrence is effective as the tough young woman, trying to hide her vulnerability and survive.
John Hawkes is the multi-layered character named Teardrop, who has to decide how much to put on the line to save Ree. And Garret Dillahunt is the sheriff caught between decency and pride.
The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini is from a novel by Daniel Woodrell.
The early images of the film show that Winter's Bone is going to feature humanity and the human condition. Although the environment is bleak, Winter's Bone opens with children jumping on a trampoline. A young boy is on a skateboard.
Even in a destitute world of pain, childish fun is universal.
As Agee was served beautifully by photographer Evans, Granik is served beautifully by cinematographer Michael McDonough. An early shot is of Ree standing at a sink washing her face -- with light streaming in the window. There's warm light in a foreboding environment.
But it's also a world where "snitching" is a death sentence. It's a world in which Ree has to be forever on alert.
There are many heartfelt moments and scenes. A little girl holds a dog; Ree feeds an apple to a donkey; a considerate army recruiter tries to let Ree down gently.
There are also fearsome scenes. There's a suspenseful stand-off between Teardrop and the sheriff, and another scene of his boldly facing a clan of criminals. And the climax has the kick of an chain saw.
Winter's Bone has anguish and fear.
But ultimately, Winter's Bone is life-affirming and real.
I think Agee would approve.
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