Doing any doing forensic work in rural communities these days? I just got back from a trip to some distal towns of Northern California, where gaunt, straggly haired, gap-toothed phantoms glide through the Walmart aisles and trailer parks. As crack cocaine is to inner cities and alcohol is to Indian reservations, so methamphetamine is devastating rural white communities across the United States.
Winter's Bone, set in the remote Ozark Mountains, hauntingly depicts this plague. The story focuses on 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose father has disappeared after putting up the family home as bail collateral. Unless she can find him, Ree and her younger brother and sister will be without a roof over their heads.
Ree's father is a "cooker" and her mother has been driven into a catatonic state. Ree is on her own in the hostile, clannish, and male-dominated community where she stumbles from trailer to trailer in her frantic search. Crank's ravages are everywhere, in the gaunt and grim faces, the harsh and sudden violence, the cruelty and hopelessness. Her father's only brother, Teardrop (flawlessly played by John Hawkes), holds a spoonful of the white powder out to her and asks, "Gotten the taste for it yet?" "Not yet," she recoils.
Aside from the down-home soundtrack, Winter's Bone is not easy to watch. Its gritty realism never lets up. The characters look like they climbed from Dorothea Lange’s Depression and Dust Bowl images, only with a touch of meth-induced paranoia added to the hunger and despair. The dialogue is sparse, and not once in 100 minutes do we hear laughter or feel much hope for Ree's future. What makes it all bearable is the strength and determination of Ree, movingly played by 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.
Winter's Bone is winning awards and earning rave reviews. The acclaim is well deserved. To achieve authenticity, director and co-writer Debra Granik and her team spent two years immersing themselves in the local community. Ree's younger sister is even played by a child who lives in the main house in which the movie is set. The film's power makes me want to see Granik's 2005 debut film, "Down to the Bone," another award winner focused on drug addiction and featuring a strong female lead.