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A Hero's Journey: Winter's Bone

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A review of Winter's Bone, 2010 Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Directed by Debra Granik, from the novel by Daniel Woodrell

What do you do when home and family are in peril? When your mother lives in a psychotic fugue too far removed to help, when your siblings are too young to care for themselves, the relatives too deranged to let them take over, and dad is missing and sought by the law?

Ask Ree Dolly. While only 17 she has come of age in the lost land of the Missouri Ozark mountains. While called "child" by those who seek to dominate her she long ago discarded any innocence. Yet she has integrity and drive, qualities that are about to be assaulted, literally and figuratively, by those closest to her.

We enter Ree's life as the sheriff drives onto property that seems a burial ground for cars, tires and lost souls. Winter is setting in and frost permeates the air. Warmth comes in small and fleeting doses. "The law," as he is called by everyone, brings bad news: Ree's father, Jessup Dolly, has skipped bail and cannot be found. Unless he appears in court next week his bond, made by putting up the family home and woodlot, will be seized. She, her brother, sister and mother will be homeless as the cold hardens around them. The law cannot find her dad but she says "I will."

Jessup was awaiting trial for cooking crank (running a home lab that makes crystal methedrine) before he disappeared. In fact, most of the Dolly family is in this business as a generation of ill fate, glimpsed from photos in an album, has delivered them to poverty and its desperations. Even their farm 'crop' has changed from marijuana to meth. They are also consumers of their product -- at least the men are -- so their brains are on fire with the drug and their behavior is as unpredictable as the mountain weather.

The accounting unfolds as Ree begins her search for her father. Like every hero's quest there are abundant dangers, surprising and shifting enemies and allies, and resolve to be tested every step of the way. Men menace their women but it is the women who are strong. Family loyalty is in constant tension with doing what is just. Ree's journey fills us with suspense as prospects for finding Jessup and saving her family dim.

The pain Ree suffers is hard to take. She seems so strong, but no one is that strong. Can it be worth it? Yet she acts without hesitation to retain her land and the meager future it will yield. Some of the scenes are deeply primal. Jennifer Lawrence's capacity to render agony, grit and tenderness is a sight to behold, if you can stand it.

Winter's Bone may be one of the best films we will see this year. It is an independent film with a two million dollar budget that spells promise for American movies. A movie of this power, that depicts a journey of necessity and determination, embodied by an ageless young woman, inspires and lends hope about those we might otherwise count out.

This film is a testimonial to human survival without a hint of pretense. All is shown, nothing has to be said: the story line and character portrayals do all the work. We encounter savage meanness and we witness transcendence. We are confronted by family in their terrible and wonderful ways. We see that when there is everything to lose that choices narrow and love shows us the way. This is the crucible which makes the (wo)man.

The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.
Lloyd I Sederer, MD

Visit Dr. Sederer's website at www.askdrlloyd.com for questions you want answered, reviews and stories.

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