An unlikely hero's journey

The first stark images of "Winter's Bone" are of two children playing in a yard, surrounded by trees winter-bare, the sunlight diffuse, without warmth. The house is more a shack than not, wood frame and hard-used. Dead cars and appliances sit deep in weeds. The setting is a hamlet in the southern Missouri Ozarks, a place apart, where people — hard scrabble, insular — live on the frayed edges of society. Many exist off the grid, suspicious, even paranoid, a source of income the cooking and sale of methamphetamine.

The children in the yard, a brother and sister, are the siblings of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), 17, who carries the full weight of her family. Her mother is paralyzed by a deep depression and her father, Jessup, recently arrested for cooking meth, has made bond and been released from jail.

What Ree soon learns from the local sheriff is that in order to post bond, Jessup had to put up the house and the surrounding acreage, some of it rich with timber, as collateral. If he fails to make his court date all will be forfeited. She and her family will be homeless.

Ree sets out to find her father, a journey that takes her to the center of the Dolly clan where she discovers that family ties will only protect her to a certain point and no further. She's told to leave it alone by men and women who look at her with cold eyes and grimly set mouths, their secrets impenetrable, while standing in front of houses as closed and damaged as they are. For Ree, the stakes are high, finding her father crucial, and she's prepared to risk it all.

"Winter's Bone" is remarkable. One of the best films thus far after a paper-thin, spring-summer season. The performance by Lawrence is astonishing as she captures with a steely grittiness the intractable place in which Ree finds herself.

As a character, Ree is the anchor of her family and alone faces a reality she barely understands. Lawrence demonstrates an uncanny subtlety and power in her portrayal, considering that the dialogue is laconic, stripped of all excess language.

So authentic is this film that it borders on cinéma-vérité. As the story unfolds, it's easy to forget the actors are not locals but are delivering, like Lawrence, exceptional performances.

"Winter's Bone" is, at its core, a woman's film. For all of their truculence and need to control, leavened with a subtext of violence, the men are almost peripheral. It's the women and, of course, Ree, who are central to the events as they slowly and ominously develop and it is the women who place Ree in harm's way. This fact gives the story an interesting and compelling dimension.

If you love movies that illuminate, that are an unsettling and penetrating window into the human condition, "Winter's Bone" is not to be missed.


Who would've thought: Angelina Jolie, consummate actress, regarded as a porcelain beauty, the object of endless speculation regarding her private life with Brad Pitt and their bevy of children, has fashioned herself into a premier action hero, equal to any of the men doing similar genre films today — Bruce Willis ("Die Hard," etc.), Matt Damon ("Bourne Identity," etc.), Daniel Craig ("Casino Royale") and Jason Statham ("The Transporter").

It's been a remarkable transformation for the award-winning Jolie — Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, all for her incomparable performance in "Girl Interrupted."

She established her Indiana Jones bona fides with the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" films, followed by "The Bone Collector" and "Gone in 60 Seconds." And not to forget "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the movie that would send the tabloids into fits of ecstasy, the icing on the celluloid cake, another notch in her street cred holster, so to speak.

And now, with the release of "Salt," a let 'er rip action thriller, Jolie demonstrates not only her well-honed acting ability, but a fearless ability to leap from moving semi-rigs, destroy massive amounts of public property, and keep the audiences breathlessly engaged as she makes a harrowing dash from pillar to post (word is she did many of her own stunts). No matter that the plot is skinny as a swivel stick; this movie is a barn-burner with plenty of tight shots of Jolie, pursing her signature lips, contemplating her next getaway.

It would be pointless to recap, even slightly, the convoluted plot. Sure it's improbable and outrageous. But what's a summer thriller for? "Salt" is a flat out gestalt of ferocious action that entertains from the first frame — the opening setup has Salt being brutally tortured by North Koreans who think she's a spy — to the final scene which, nicely done, seems an introduction to a sequel.

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