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On Movies: Embrace the chill of 'Winter's Bone'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2010 - Fans of Daniel Woodrell, the Missouri Ozarks writer, should be pleased to learn that his masterful 2006 novel "Winter's Bone" has been turned into a fine new movie.

"Winter's Bone," which won the Grand Jury prize at this year's Sundance film festival, tells a story that is at the same time epic and on the scale of life itself. At the center of the film is a remarkable heroine, Ree Dolly. Barely 17 years old, she embarks on a quest as old as mankind but with a contemporary twist. She is searching for her father. If she finds him, he will likely go to prison for manufacturing meth.

After his most recent arrest, Ree's father put the family's house and land up for bond. Then he disappeared. As his trial date approaches, Ree is warned that, unless her father shows up to honor his bond, the family will forfeit its home.

Ree refuses to let that happened. In her father's absence, she has become the head of her household -- her brother and sister are too young to care for themselves, and her mother is virtually immobilized by depression. Ree fears, not without reason, that the loss of the home would destroy the family.

In search of her father, Ree begins walking the hills and hollows of her home territory, knocking on the doors of people she is either related to or knows well - there are no strangers in these hills. Everyone knows why Ree is looking for Jess Dolly, and some of the people she confronts are meth manufacturers themselves. She is met with angry refusals to talk and with threats. Eventually, as she begins to suspect that her father is dead and tries to find his body, she is beaten and warned she will be killed if she persists.

She persists.

The film version of "Winter's Bone" is blessed with a superb cast that notably includes Dale Dickey as a protective mountain matriarch and John Hawkes ("Deadwood") as Ree's meth addict Uncle Teardrop, a dangerous man who might help Ree, and might not. And, as Ree, Jennifer Lawrence takes full control of the central role, a strong-willed young woman who may be afraid, indeed terrified, of the brutal criminal world she is confronting, but who refuses to back down. It is a tough role, calling for both strength and vulnerability, and she masters it.

One danger of converting, and compressing, a harrowing novel like "Winter's Bone" into a feature-length film is that some of the characters might be reduced to caricatures, meth-crazed hillbillies. Director Debra Granik clearly was trying to avoid that. She gives us three-dimensional individuals.

At times, she loosens the knot of suspense with scenes of neighborliness and quiet country fellowship, sometimes accompanied by the old-time music of the mountains, with banjos and fiddles lightly stroked. "Winter's Bone" even has its pastoral moments, although you never know what nastiness may be lurking in the pasture next door, and the narrative is never completely free of a lurking sense of danger.

The denouement is a shocker, although filmed with a matter-of-fact lack of sensationalism. Indeed, the whole movie benefits from a deliberate pace that maintains suspense while avoiding melodrama.

Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough do a beautiful job of showing us the Ozarks (Taney and Christian counties) in winter, drab of color but rich in detail, and we learn much about people from seeing the detritus of their lives. One way to convert Woodrell's novel into a movie would be to give it the Elmore Leonard treatment, with one outrageous act propelling us into another.

I love Elmore Leonard, but, as an admirer of the rich humanity of Daniel Woodrell's novel "Winter's Bone," I am very glad that Granik chose to make a movie that aimed for something more complex and more human. "Winter's Bone," I think, is the best movie I've seen this year.

Opens Friday, June 18

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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