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Blood Relations

One young woman struggles with what it means to be family

Jennifer Lawrence tries to keep a roof over her head.

Winter's Bone

Director:Debra Granik
Cast:Jennifer Lawrence, Dale Dickey, Isaiah Stone, Ashlee Thompson, William White
Release Date:2010

Opens June 25 at the Charles Theatre

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/23/2010

Be suspicious of the people who beat the crap out of you--that's a fairly obvious evolutionary life lesson. So when 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) spies Merab (the incomparable Dale Dickey) and some of her cronies walking up to her property in the Missouri Ozarks, Ree prudently grabs a double-barrel shotgun. A few days prior, Ree had made her second trek up to Merab's and caught a cup of hot coffee in the face followed by a fist and foot pummeling that dislodged a tooth. All Ree is trying to do is find out anything about the whereabouts of her father Jessup, a crank cooker in the family meth business who was recently released on bond.

Thing is, Jessup put up the house and land as collateral, and if he doesn't appear in court Ree stands to lose the only thing separating her, her 12-year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone), 6-year-old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), and heavily medicated mother from fending for themselves in the cold, hard winter. Ree wants to talk to the clan's kingpin, Blond Milton (William White), which Merab warns her against--and backs up that warning with the beat down. Now, though, Merab wants to show Ree something that may help. All Ree has to do is put the scattergun down and come with them. In a car with a hood over her head. And then ride out onto a lake with Merab in a rowboat. At night. With a chainsaw.

Director Debra Granik's sumptuously unadorned Winter's Bone spins one hell of a crime story, but it's an even better exploration of the ties that bind people--to family, to society, to justice, to self. It eloquently fuses its thematic and visual languages into a contradictory knot--such as the gorgeous Southwestern Missouri region clashing with the old cars, dilapidated fences, collarless dogs, and the general hard-scrabble existence--to create a starkly poetic reality. And Granik, her co-writer Anne Rosellini, and this excellent cast rarely misstep, allowing the interconnected lives of this family and community to entangle themselves at a nail-biting crawl, as if ivy blanketing a brick wall.

Cinematographer Michael McDonough gives Bone a crisp, weathered look and improvisational intimacy, like a cross between Vilmos Zsigmond's work on McCabe and Mrs. Miller and a Joseph Szabo photo. It's a visual tone that's as deliberate as Granik's editing pulse and narrative drive, which dispenses information and plot points as stingily as you might spend C-notes. Although she's rarely out of the frame, nearly 17 minutes pass before a character calls Ree by name--and immediately follows that up with the first of many confrontations, this one from her uncle Teardrop (consummate character actor John Hawkes, almost unrecognizable here as a man who's lived by and on methamphetamine so long he's barely able to distinguish what matters--or should matter--to him and why). Another half hour goes by before Ree's asked to disclose her age, and by that time she's already endured so much that discovering her minor status feels like an elbow to the throat--and she's barely half way through navigating her predicament.

Bone is an adaptation of the novel by the same name by the superb Daniel Woodrell, who shouldn't be judged by Ang Lee's 1999 Ride With the Devil, which captured the singular spirit of Woodrell's Woe to Live On almost as poorly as screenwriter Ernest Lehman's lone directorial effort, 1972's Portnoy's Complaint. Woodrell is considered a crime writer--and his books, from 1986's Under the Bright Lights through 1996's Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir and the adrenaline-pushing Tomato Red, are certainly populated by the fringes of polite society--but to trap Woodrell in genre doesn't capture his sophisticated grasp of the human condition. A socioeconomic and geographic place is as intrinsic to his novels as it is to Faulkner, and Woodrell's ear for everyday speech is sublime: He's as gifted as Harry Crews at letting characters' dialogue establish their personalities.

Its a subtlety that Granik and Rosellini import to the movie. Speech, what is said and its context, illuminates Bone as much as the cinematography, and Hawkes and especially Lawrence recognize how language defines this world. Lawrence has a touch of Renée Zellweger's all-American cuteness cut with Amy Ryan's fearless durability, and the mix slowly surfaces in Ree's combination of youth and precocious resolve--whether she's dealing with the obstinately reticent family menfolk or instructing a reluctant Sonny how to skin a squirrel, because, "there's gonna be a bunch of things you're going to be scared of that you're gonna have to do."

The scene isn't a mere concession to capturing rural life; it echoes the movie's overall thematic concerns. Granik's deft direction has echoes of the mundane rhythms of Kelly Reichardt's realism and, perhaps grandiose, a Bressonian dedication to ideals that invests Bone with a sense of the elemental. Everything feels to have some kind of polyvalent purpose here, no matter how initially innocuous. During the squirrel cleaning, Ree asks Sonny to stick his hands inside and pull the guts out. "Do we eat these parts?" he asks. Ree responds with simple, devastating awareness: "Not yet."

E-mail Bret McCabe

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