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Review: “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

It would be inaccurate to say 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is shouldering the weight of the world. It’s more that she’s shouldering the weight of raising her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and baby sister (Ashlee Thompson) while caring for her mute, near-catatonic mother (Shelley Waggener) and keeping her family home running despite abject poverty and her meth-cooking father’s disappearance. That’s hardly miraculous. The remarkable thing is that Ree has seen very little to give her faith in people (and certainly not in her mistrusting, insular family). And still she believes people are good, or at least decent. Her circumstances may have hardened her, but they haven’t hardened her heart.

In this way, “Winter’s Bone” shares some commonalities with director Debra Granik’s first feature, “Down to the Bone,” a decidedly undramatic look at the unremarkable life of Irene, a checkout clerk sinking deeper into drug addiction. Irene is unremarkable, but her circumstances force her into limbo; she must choose to climb or fall. Though “Winter’s Bone” is a creative step beyond that film’s simplicity, Ree, within her world, is living an average life. But Granik’s adaptation is stylized, given the unnerving feel of the best of film noir — even though “Winter’s Bone” is set in the forbidding Ozarks. Or maybe it’s the setting that amplifies the noir, since the best films of the genre turn setting into a character all its own. The elements are there: the conflicted, dogged hero; the crime in the past that thrives in the present; the bystanders who know more than they’ll say; the truth that’s dredged up no matter how deep the criminals buried it or how closely they guard the grounds. Even the dialogue, in its abrupt mountain way, has its place. There are no one-liners, but the characters choose their words with the utmost care. Every word means what it means, and it means something more.

Ree has learned the value of not saying a syllable more than she has to. Silence keeps people breathing. Members of the Dolly clan may be Ree’s family in blood, but they abide their own codes of behavior. They will not endanger themselves to help one of their own. And Jessup Dolly, Ree’s father, has done some things his relatives cannot forgive. So Ree finds herself hitting wall after wall as she searches for her father, who put the family homestead up for bond to get out of jail and then vanished. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a volatile tweaker, warns her to stop asking questions. Her attempts to speak with Thump (Ronnie Hall), the Dolly family mafioso, are met with stony silence and then violence arranged by Merab (a wonderfully scary Dale Dickey). Ree, Merab reasons, deserves it: She’s an upstart, a nuisance who demands that the Dolly clan help her siblings and her mother. She does not respect the unspoken behavioral code. Still, as angry as her behavior makes Merab, Thump and their underlings, it also impresses them. Ree, just 17, has the grit of a woman twice that age. She refuses to back down when her family’s welfare is on the line.

Based on her fierce performance, it would appear the same could be said of 20-year-old Kentucky-born actress Jennifer Lawrence. She supplies Ree with an amazing, iron-tough will and also vulnerability, which she knows instinctively she must hide if she wants to survive her quest to find Jessup dead or alive. Whatever praise critics have heaped on her for this role, Lawrence deserves it. Dickey and Hawkes deserve equal amounts of kudos. Dickey’s Merab is a fascinating enigma — a woman made hard by her surroundings, but one still capable of showing kindness (however bizarre) to those who deserve it. Hawkes, a character actor of brilliant subtlety, allows Teardrop, known as a screw-up and wild card, to undergo a believable transformation. Teardrop’s motivations run deeper than scoring his next fix; he’s torn between the need to keep in line and his desire to find his brother and protect Ree and her siblings. Doing right by Ree’s family doesn’t necessarily mean doing the right thing. In this oft-overlooked world Granik turns the camera on, “right” and “wrong,” sometimes, are one and the same.

Grade: A+

Review: “Down to the Bone” (2004)

There are two kinds of alcohol/drug addiction movies: ones that are as loud, sloppy and insistent as a last-call drunk, and those that are as bleak and haunting as a junkie’s pinned-pupil gaze.

Powered by what should have been a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), “Down to the Bone” fits squarely into the second category. There are no Oscar-bait “Basketball Diaries” smack sickness enactments, no drunken meltdowns (Meg Ryan, anyone?), no “Buck Up, Little Toaster” speeches (a la Morgan Freeman in his “Clean and Sober” days). No, “Down to the Bone” cuts through all the histrionics — hence the title — and offers a bleak, unsparing and ultimately hopeful look at one woman’s struggle to reclaim sobriety.

A bored grocery store cashier, Irene (Farmiga) is an addict who epitomizes Matt Dillon’s “Drugstore Cowboy” philosophy: She snorts coke to cope with the everyday things, like grumbling managers, squabbling kids and an increasingly distant and clueless husband (Clint Jordan) who thinks his wife’s just a casual user. And Irene believes that, too — until she offers her dealer her son’s birthday check to buy coke. Finding herself smack at the bottom, she checks into rehab and meets an unlikely ally: Bob (Hugh Dillon), a nurse and recovering heroin addict. Both weary of life, both yearning for change, they strike up a friendship that quickly becomes — you guessed it — more amorous than either expected.

But please, I beg you, don’t go thinking this turns “Bone” into a Lifetime movie starring MBB (Meredith Baxter-Birney for those not in the know). In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Director Debra Granik handles Irene and Bob’s tenuous bond with effortless grace. Here is a real relationship, shaky and reassuring and frightening, where two people find each other because they share something that has shaped their lives for years: drug addiction. Their plain, unstilted conversations, their halting, shy touches — it’s all painfully awkward and painfully real, with no “When a Man Loves a Woman” schmaltz to color and muddy the real issues of the day-to-day drudgery of life without dope, without a coping mechanism. The relapse, though expected (relapse, after all, is more common than stone-cold sobriety), is that much more gut-wrenching because it’s real. Addiction is bleak, but so, too, is the constant struggle to overcome it — something that Granik gets absolutely right.

Granik’s no-frills direction (almost) pales in comparison, though, to the first-rate performances of Dillon and Farmiga. Dillon’s Bob is hardly a knight-in-shining-armor figure; he’s as damaged as Irene, but he considers his job — working with addicts in rehab — his penance. He’s guarded but friendly, and he opens up to Irene because he sees a kindred spirit, someone as bored with everyday life as he is. Dillon finds the right mix of world-weariness and hope, but he’s matched, frame for frame, by Farmiga. It’s hard to describe what she does so well in “Bone” because there will be people (ignore them; they’re a nuanceless, pedestrian group) who say she’s too low-key, too emotionless. But it’s that lack of visible emotion that makes Farmiga’s Irene so believable a character: She’s a woman who has maintained a secret life for over a decade. She reveals nothing about her true self to anyone until she meets Bob, and even then she holds back. The beauty of Farmiga’s character emerges in the subtleties: the way her eyes change when she looks at Bob or her children, her tentative friendship with a fellow recovering addict (Caridad de la Luz). It takes work to see it, but it’s worth the effort.

And maybe that’s what makes “Down to the Bone” so compelling: So much of the power is underneath the surface. It’s what you don’t see that kills you.

Grade: A