Nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards came out yesterday, and included among them were a couple for Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone.  Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for her role as “Ree”, and John Hawkes was nominated for his role as “Teardrop”.  The story takes place in the Ozark mountains of Missouri and involves Ree’s search for her drug-dealing father who, after putting their house and land up to make bail, has now gone missing.  If he doesn’t show up for his court date, Ree, who is the sole caretaker for her younger brother, sister and mentally ill, mute mother, will lose the only sure way she has of keeping her family together.  She must find her father.

What begins from there is Ree’s odyssey through backwoods and hollows, through yards strewn with trash and old tires, through cluttered kitchens and living rooms, through sparsely furnished meth houses, all in search of the one person who cares the least but can help the most.  We travel on this journey with Ree, whom 20-year-old Lawrence plays with the surprising self-possession of a young Jodie Foster, and meet several other weary souls, hardened by generations of poverty and despair.  Among them are her father’s brother, Teardrop, and Merab, played by Dale Dickey, who is also related to Ree.

Although Jennifer Lawrence definitely deserves her nomination, it is Hawkes and Dickey, less pretty actors but just as magnetic, who provide the complicated, multi-layered performances that made this movie a hidden gem in the loud, garish world of summer blockbusters.  As should be the case, you’ll vaguely recognize both actors but may confuse them with actual people you’ve rubbed up against in your own life.  Their portrayals of Teardrop and Merab are that true. 

Teardrop is a hot-tempered meth addict with a chip on his shoulder the size of the mountains that surround his ramshackle house.  In his first scene he refuses to help Ree find his missing brother and then grabs her up by her neck to drive his point home.  What a sweetheart, no?    Merab also refuses to help Ree, eventually punching out a few of her teeth as an extra-added bonus.  Nice.  These are two people deeply scarred by life who abide by a cold, brutal code.   But something in Ree’s earnest determination to rise above that to which they are doomed unearths a sort of rusty kindness in Teardrop and Merab.  Perhaps in aiding Ree’s quest to save her family, they come to terms with what could have been for themselves.

The mystery of what happened to Ree’s father never completely unfolds, but the movie does come to a conclusion in the way only an independent film can.  We have many questions, we want to know more, nevertheless we are still strangely satisfied by the ending.  Most importantly, we know Ree and her family will be okay.

Winter’s Bone could have been a dark, bleak film that sent its audience straight into the arms of Iron Man 2 for relief.  Instead, Granik gives us a sense of hope in a world beset on all sides with poverty, drugs, ignorance and despair.  It is in Ree that we find this hope.  Under gun-metal gray skies and naked black trees walks a strong, proud mountain girl, her long hair whipping in the cold wind, who refuses to yield to the destiny of those before her.  And she must find her daddy.

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