(director/writer: Debra Granik; screenwriters: Anne Rosellini/based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell; cinematographer: Michael McDonough; editor: Affonso Gonçalves; music: Dickon Hinchliffe; cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Ree Dolly), John Hawkes (Teardrop), Kevin Breznahan (Little Arthur), Dale Dickey (Merab), Garret Dillahunt (Sheriff Baskin), William White (Blond Milton, local drug kingpin), Sheryl Lee (April), Casey MacLaren(Megan),Lauren Sweetser (Gail), Tate Taylor (Satterfield), Cody Brown (Floyd), Valerie Richards (Connie, Ree’s mom), Isaiah Stone (Sonny), Ashlee Thompson(Ashlee), Shelley Waggener(Sonya); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Anne Rosellini/Alix Madigan Yorkin; Roadside Attractions; 2010)
“Keeps things authentic and chilling.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
NYU film student grad Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) directs and cowrites with Anne Rosellini this bleak slice of life hillbilly thriller set in the Ozarks during early winter, and keeps things authentic and chilling. It’s based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. The film was warmly received at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. It’s the kind of powerful film that gets to your insides and its rawness reminds one of B-film noir at its best. It’s intense, atmospheric, and well-acted, where the teenage heroine protagonist is so good in this role that she doesn’t seem to be acting as she’s tossed around in the cruel and unjust world as a vic who must deal with a dangerous situation not of her making like an adult or else she and her family will probably not survive.
We follow strong-willed responsible 17-year-old high school student Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who for good reason acts more like an adult than a teen. Ree lives in poverty on a remote sprawling homestead in the backwoods of Missouri’s Ozarks, where her daddy Jessup Dolly has been arrested for cooking crystal meth and is facing a stiff prison sentence, and her weakling mentallydysfunctionalmom (Valerie Richards) lives at home but is so catatonic she can’t function and be of any help in this time of need. Ree runs the household in her dad’s absence and takes care of her twelve-year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and six-year-old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Ree chops wood and teaches her siblings spelling, marksmanship, hunting and how to gut a squirrel for supper.
Things hit critical mass when the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) rides out to tell Ree that her dad is missing after bailed out and if he doesn’t turn up for trial in a week the family will lose the home dad put up as bond to get bailed out. The problem is to track daddy down Ree will have to deal with some rough criminal hillbilly characters who are into the pervasive drug trade in the impoverished area and who have their own code of laws and do not welcome her intrusion into their personal business even if she’s a distant relation. When Ree’s dad misses his trial date, his drug-addicted big brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), who was at first violently hostile to his relation in need, shakes off his cocaine fog and ambivalence in ruffling the feathers of the nasty Ozark clan running the drug operation and decides to help when he sees Ree’s determination not to lose the humble cabin–the only thing she believes that can hold the family together, as otherwise her family will be out in the street.
How Ree deals with these insular and ruthless drug-dealers, takes her on a dark trip that transports the story into tense film noir turf. Every character here is pained and what little they have, they will not let go of easily. The disturbing story takes us to places where people still act tribal and hold grudges for generations. It’s a deprived place, where there’s not much opportunity and the role models are mostly of the wrong kind.
It’s a stunning pic, that takes the likable heroine on a scary journey to show us the grit it takes to survive in a such a brutal place (which might be heroic enough!) and that it can be nerve-wracking to realize one can’t find a way at present to change your bad situation (enlisting in the army, as Ree once contemplated, is no longer an option when your siblings depend on you). Ree must learn to accept things that are out of her control that she can’t alter. It’s also pointed out the area has some good traditions such as its rich country music of banjos and fiddles and the strong traditional bond between families and neighbors living in the same poor condition who help each other without a second thought in times of trouble, as both these traditions are in her DNA.
It’s a straightforward picture that tells us with authoritative certainty “Never ask for what ought to be offered,”but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a subtle pic with more complex things to contemplate than first thought.
REVIEWED ON 8/28/2010 GRADE: A