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22nd August
written by Mad Cow

Rated: R for some drug material, language and violent content

Mad Cow’s rating: 

What is remarkable about this movie is its exploration of rural poverty and preponderance of women characters, both of which are out of the ordinary. Not to mention that the director (Debra Granik) and co-screenplay writer (Anne Rosellini) are women. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl in the Ozarks who is the sole caretaker of her young siblings and her mentally ill mother. Dad, Jessup, a meth dealer, has run off, his whereabouts unknown. Ree finds out from the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) that her dad has skipped bail. He put up their house as bond and if he doesn’t show up within a week, the family will be homeless. “I’ll find him,” Ree declares.

The family and their neighbors face many hardships that are real but hidden to the mainstream population throughout America. I personally know rural people who are disabled due to lack of treatment for controllable chronic conditions and who live precariously in multiple ways. Ree teaches her siblings, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), 12 and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), 6, to shoot squirrels for food and they rely on a kind neighbor for food and other helps. Nevertheless, the movie follows a stereotypical path.

As Ree walks through the hills to find her father, she visits people who know him, including his brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), a woman named Merab (Dale Dickey, who gives a fierce performance), and others. Trying to stay out of trouble or hide their own crimes, few want to help her and many want to harm her. Even those who end up helping her do so in an incredibly sadistic manner. And that’s where my radar goes up and my objections begin to mount.

Unlike Frozen River, for example, also an uncompromising view of rural life with strong women characters in danger, there is no everyday life in this movie. Everything is grim. In one scene, we get to see a living room full of people about to play some music, giving hope that we’ll glimpse the everyday happiness that occurs even in the most desperate of places. But no, the scene is way too short-lived.

Frozen River naturally compares with this film. It’s also a thriller with edge-of-the-seat suspense, but it includes more and better character development, subtler suggestions of motivations and more explicit examples of how people must cope with their poverty, their hopes and dreams. One character is severely limited because she is near-sighted. Another dreams of someday having a “double wide” manufactured house. They lack water and other necessities. But there is a day-to-dayness that is lacking in Winter’s Bone.

I should mention that Winter’s Bone won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival , the gold standard of indie films. (Frozen River won the prize in 2008.) Dubbed a Gothic thriller, it is lauded for its starkness and the heroic characterization of Ree. Yet reviewers have skipped the “Gothic” part and resonate to its “reality,” a problematic paradox.

Lawrence as Dee is strong and smart and, at 19, undoubtedly has a great acting future ahead of her. Still, she isn’t really required to show much range. The other characters, likewise, mean and not-so-mean, also don’t change much. The story is an interesting one and mysteries are revealed but this movie could have been so much more. As usual, I didn’t read the book, written by Daniel Woodrell. Maybe it was short-changed, but I think the audience was short-changed here. Ultimately, this movie smacks of the message of the 1972 hit, Deliverance – those rural rednecks are mean sons of bitches – only this time the rednecks are also women.

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