The Western genre, a long-standing movie staple, is characterized by a rough-around-the-edges hero, who musters his steely courage in order to exact vengeance. There’s always a small but hardy village standing tough in the middle of a harsh and desolate landscape. Despite its modern context, this movie does not disappoint; especially since, unlike traditional Westerns, the protagonists have realistic flaws. The stakes are high as two brothers, a divorcee and an ex-con start robbing banks out of desperation to save their family’s dying Texas ranch. Not far behind are a couple of old pros, a ranger and his partner assigned to what was expected to be a small time offense. As the lawbreaking escalates, everyone involved quickly realizes their lives are on the line.
I had the pleasure of watching an advance screening of this pearl at a film festival. Afterwards, a local musician spoke about the making of it. Deep in the Ozarks, lies a population—like a country all its own—sprawled out among the craggy terrain. Fiercely protective of their own, it took years to earn the trust of the community in order to craft a novel based on their way of life.
Most of the supporting cast and extras are locals, and the homes and clothing are indigenous to the area. Lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence (virtually unknown at the time of its release) had to learn to hunt & skin squirrels, to chop firewood and to fight. Her character must find some evidence of her meth cook father, for whom there is an arrest warrant. He’s missing—either in hiding or dead—but “like a dog digging after a Winter’s bone,” as the old Appalachian expression goes, she must find some enough proof to satisfy the authoritys, who are about to seize her family home where she takes care of her ailing mother and two younger siblings.
In the vein of an old Western, this gritty mystery doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a treat to see such complex characters in a plot that doesn’t meander down gratuitous rabbit trails. Too many filmmakers think the more graphic details they include the more intense the plot will be. On the contrary: certain scenes are intense but it’s easy to lose sight of the larger story when you can’t see the forest for the trees. When an ex-cop, who’s wrestling with inner demons, stumbles upon a way to potentially redeem himself, you want to see the transformation rather than indulge the director’s latent fantasies. Especially, when he needs to figure out how to save everyone he put in danger in the first place. Actions have consequences but they don’t have to be bad; it all depends on how much you’re willing to risk to put things right.