Ever since the late 80’s and early 90’s with the massive success of films like Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood, Hollywood developed a mild obsession with the urban crime/urban poverty picture. Due to heightened social awareness of the never-ending cycle of violence, drugs, and heart-breaking poverty, groups of courageous filmmakers decided to put that plight in a medium that would let as many people as possible know about what was really going on. Boyz N the Hood, and eventually TV show The Wire, served as some of the most important cinema verite of all time, in how it uses fictional stories to show the truth and reality in ways that journalism could never really accomplish.

Institutional poverty and the poison of community-killing drugs isn’t just a problem of the inner cities however. Any one from rural America can tell you just how much meth is destroying our families and our homes and that we know what it means to be poor as well as anyone from the inner city does. We’re just spread over miles and miles of forest and farmland, not packed into one area like sardines. With the exception of the documentary film genre and the occasional picture about miners, the film industry has never done an adequate job of showing the crippling poverty and sense of desperation that so many families suffer from in our nation’s most forgotten areas. As someone who grew up in one of the poorest states in the union, West Virginia, in a particularly impoverished town, I have waited years and years for someone to tell our story. And while the haunting and gut-wrenching Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks and not the Appalachians, that film has finally been made.

Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a seventeen year old girl growing up in the poorest of poor areas in the Ozark Mountains. She has two much younger siblings that she raises practically on her own because her mother is mentally ill and basically a vegetable and her father is a crystal meth cook who has been arrested but has jumped the bail that was set for him. He put up the family’s house and land against the bond, and the only way that Ree Dolly will be able to keep her home and take care of her family is if she can find her father and bring him back to the law. This movie plays out as part film noir in Ree’s attempts to find her father; it’s part a family drama. And most importantly for me, it is without a doubt the most gritty and realistic look at the poverty and crime that crystal meth has brought into the pristine beauty of rural America.

The cinematography in this film was absolutely superb. Every image of this film evokes the natural beauty of the Ozarks while simultaneously contrasting it with the frighteningly accurate portrayal of modern rural poverty. It was like being back home in Barbour County, West Virginia. My family was poor, but by Barbour County standards, we did ok and we got by. However, I recognized practically ever scene from this film in the town that I grew up in. The trailers with abandoned cars wasting away to rust. The rednecks who are so skinny and sunken in from meth use that they look like they just escaped from a concentration camp. The kids wearing second and third hand clothes with camouflage present everywhere. Everybody drives a pick-up truck. Every detail of this film is spot-on in the kind of way that only a true member of that community can validate. And believe me when I say that this is how it is.

To top off the incredibly important story and presentation of the film, it is rooted in performances that are so believable it borders on scary. Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the best performances from a young actress that I have ever seen in the lead role of Ree. She plays her with such resolution and strong-will yet with just the right touch of still essentially being a child that was forced to grow up far too fast that it is just incredibly powerful. 2010 was a fantastic year for actresses in a lead role, and it’s a shame for Jennifer that she was up against Natalie Portman’s historic performance in Black Swan. Deadwood’s John Hawkes plays Ree’s uncle Teardrop (I believe the name is a reference to the tear drop tattoo that many prisoners get as a sign that they did time), and he won an Independent Spirit Award for his role in this film. If he weren’t up against a five star performance from Christian Bale in The Fighter, I would have given him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar easily. Breaking Bad‘s Daley Dickey also won an Independent Spirit Award for her role as the violent wife of the head meth dealer, and she honest to god looks and acts like a real life crank head. She’s just terrifying.

This review is now tied with Baby Boy as being one of the long reviews that I’ve written for this blog, but there’s a damn good reason for this. Winter’s Bone is, after just one viewing, one of the most important films that I have seen in a long, long time, and I really hope that it finds the audience and creates the ultimate legacy that it deserves. The Wire proved that you don’t have to tell a true story in order for your work to have important sociological value and to increase the awareness that people have for real problems and tragedies that our world faces. If aren’t from rural America, you might not understand what a crowning achievement in film this is because you don’t understand how rarely our story ever gets told. But for every single person out there who grew up in the “hollers” and backwoods of our nation’s untouched expanses, this film is for you, and you would be doing yourself and this film’s makers a dis-service by not taking the time out to watch this haunting film.

Final Score: A+

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