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Anyone who says there are no good film roles for women anymore needs to see "Winter's Bone," a superlative rural noir with a fiercely determined 17-year-old in the detective role. Jennifer Lawrence gives a peerless performance as Ree Dolly, a smart, dirt-poor Ozarks teen raising her brother and sister while caring for her near-catatonic mother. When her meth-cooking dad, Jessup, vanishes before a court appearance, Ree must track him down or lose the family home he offered as collateral on his bail bond.
In an impeccable act of sympathetic imagination, director Debra Granik has entered into the soul of debt-ridden Appalachia. This is only her second feature -- 2004's "Down to the Bone" introduced Vera Farmiga as a drug-addicted housewife -- yet she displays the assured grace of a veteran. She found strong material in the intense, moody novel by Daniel Woodrell, and turned it into a sensational film. Granik sees rusted cars, grungy trampolines, mossy oak camouflage jackets and hung, gutted deer with the eye of a poetic reporter.
This is no anthropological "plight of the rural poor" hand-wringer, but a gritty, suspenseful crime story. Every frame is charged with tension. Did Daddy run, or was someone worried that he would take the witness stand? The backwoods smuggling culture that has evolved from bootlegging moonshine to manufacturing crank has never been kind to troublemakers, and firearms are everywhere.
Ree doesn't know where to turn for help -- her hard-bitten outlaw clan stonewalls her -- and her quest is charged with desperate anxiety. Ree's sour uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) regards the curious girl like a cottonmouth eyeing a rabbit; he's the sort to warn his timid wife, "I already tole you to shut up with my mouth." Granik ratchets up the tension in every scene, putting your heart in a vise. The editing creates a magical feel of unease and evil. There comes a moment when you begin to get a chill sensation along the spine and realize how easily Ree's body could be lost in the woods.
As time runs out for Ree and almost everyone threatens her to back off -- with their mouths, or worse -- we see how nearly impossible a challenge she faces. A visit to her high school, where she talks with an Army recruiter about signing up for the enlistment bonus, shows how limited her options are. In one drab classroom there's an ROTC class where students cradle rifles in their arms; in another, teens hold plastic baby dolls.
Battered by disappointment, Ree presses on. She's a survivor, smart enough to know when she's being lied to and clever enough to outflank most of her adversaries. She passes along her skills to her young siblings, teaching them how to handle a rifle and clean a squirrel. When her brother asks, "Do we eat the guts?" she responds with stoic understatement, "Not yet." Complaining, asking for help or despairing are not on the menu, either.
Being capable is the bedrock of self-respect in this neck of the woods, and Ree is not about to surrender her pride. She's an indelible centerpiece to a memorable movie. Film lovers will be talking about "Winter's Bone" for years.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186