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Jesse Kornbluth Headshot

Winter's Bone Is the Best Movie I've Seen This Year (Or Hope to)

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In American movies, we don't often see how we really live, but you will in Winter's Bone, and you don't need to have had a rough childhood in the back woods for this movie to make you feel the grittiness and glory of life -- or for you to know, like you would know how to find your bed in the dark, that this is probably the best movie you will see this year. And maybe longer.

Winter's Bone, directed by Debra Granik, was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] It was made in the Ozarks, often in the homes of the people who live there. Shot digitally on a mingy budget, it could pass for state-of-the-art Hollywood --- just raw and unvarnished, like Hollywood never is.

The story is simple; this is a straightforward thriller. Ree's father, Jessup Dolly, was busted a while back for cooking methamphetamine. To make bond, he put up his family's house and 300 acres of virgin timber. Now his court date is a week away --- and he's nowhere to be found. The local lawman drives out to warn Ree that the Dollys are in danger of losing their home.

Ree's mother has suffered a breakdown and is of no help, either in caring for her children or finding her husband. That puts her daughter --- already burdened by the need to look after her younger brother and sister --- on a mission. And don't think for a minute she'll quit, even though her quest is a walk on a knife edge; she can't turn in her father, all she can do is ask for help in finding him so she can talk to him. And the only people who can help her? His relatives. Some of them make the most addictive drug on the planet. All of them don't understand why she can't remember she's a Dolly --- "bred and buttered," as she says --- and just stop. As they say, "Talking just causes witnesses."

In its dramatic revelations, its dark surprises, and its no-nonsense portrayal of The Way We Are, the film feels almost like a Greek tragedy --- or an American Western. The trailer gives you a sense of the stakes and the seriousness:

There's a good reason this film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Films and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance last winter, and why critic after critic is reaching deep into the superlatives lexicon to praise it, even in June, as "the American film of the year" -- every detail is right. Jenny Lawrence, who plays Ree, comes from Tennessee. John Hawkes, last seen in Deadwood, is Jessup's brother; he's also from the region and looks so much like a member of The Band that it's eerie. Much of the cast is local and non-professional --- and, no offense, but they look like people who might make crank, who could scare the shit out of you at traffic lights with a sidelong glance, who would quiet you with "I already told you to shut up with my mouth" and let their hands do the talking after that.

I've never seen a movie that's both painful to watch and impossible to turn away from. The scene with the squirrel. Ree's desperate attempt to convince an Army recruiter -- who's played by an Army recruiter -- to let her enlist for five years so she can collect the government's $40,000 bonus. And a climax so remarkable, so distant from anything you know as reality, that you'll never forget it.

In a summer when stupid rules the multiplex, it's almost a merit badge to have to search out a theater that's showing Winter's Bone -- here's the list. I don't encourage you to read lots of reviews, but after you see the film, you will surely want to visit the web site for Winter's Bone and learn more about the film, the director, the cast and the Ozarks.

And because you are going to see this film and feel the pain and the strength of a great character and a transcendent actress, you get a bonus: a song from the movie, played by Dirt Road Delight, the group that performed it. They're appearing on local TV --- KSPR, in Springfield, Missouri --- and they don't start singing until a minute and a half in, but then, that first minute and a half isn't what you usually see on your Hi-Def home screen.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]