Winter's Bone

(USA - 2010)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Brezahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Director: Debra Granik
Screenplay: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's novel
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Composer: Dickon Hinchliffe

“There's a bunch of stuff that you're gonna have to get over being scared of” - Ree

Mum is the world in the desolate Ozark Mountain range that breeds a corrupted, barely subsisting clannish rural community where squirrel stew is considered a good dinner and the main product is now crank. The economic situation produces a morally ambiguous atmosphere that renders everyone potentially dangerous because they are doing something they shouldn't to get by, or at least live with someone who is. Your relatives are so addicted, and so confident you wouldn't dare do anything but keep your mouth shut, that they may nonchalantly pull out a powder filled sandwich bag and snort a minute into their uninvited visit. In this inbred world where everyone is scraping the bone, the townspeople brandish at least a bit of none too concealed menace, and scheming and lending $20 you can't really spare often go hand in hand.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) isn't out to make trouble. She doesn't want revenge, or anything more than she already has. She really doesn't even want change. She simply wants to avoid becoming a cavedweller, as the 17-year-old has a hard enough time taking care of two siblings who can't feed themselves and a catatonic mother in their house. But her meth cooking father Jessup put their log cabin and timber acres, in other words all they have the the world, up as collateral for his latest bail bond, and he's nowhere to be found.

One of the values Ree teaches her 12-year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) is “never ask for what ought to be offered.” Ree's odyssey of necessity sees her forced to turn to people she normally wouldn't associate, mostly because they don't share her values of looking out for their own and helping the less fortunate. Many instead subscribe to the more widespread belief that, like it or not and for better or worse, the best interests of the drug trafficking come first, which perpetually leaves them in intimidatory attack mode. There's relatives who forgot Ree exists, or at least tried to, and jibe that someone must have died for her to show up, relatives who pretend they aren't relatives and would rather scare her off than risk her being a witness against them.

One of the primary qualities of Winter's Bone is it's never about Ree or her heroism. Jennifer Lawrence plays the part with stoic determination, and there's no dialogue or music or camera angles that flaunt or celebrate her efforts. This is not a movie that's about making her a martyr or making us feel good about her or, in turn, ourselves; it's slightly hopeful but there's no sentimentality. Ree isn't asking for the weight, she has been hoping it's not permanent and contemplating joining the army because the $40,000 they offer is her only opportunity to make a substantial sum of money. But now her parents have thrown yet another monkey wrench in her life, and in this land where women are second class beings who crony for their dangerous men, she is searching for her father because, like everything else, someone has to do it and she's very simply the only one who is willing and able.

Ree has already given up their horse to their goodwilled food providing neighbor Sonya (Shelley Waggener), and her brother, who the neighbors eye, and sister, who “doesn't shine for them”, may be next if they are suddenly homeless. She doesn't really know what she's doing or how to go about it, she just knows she needs a result, really fast, and isn't going to beg for it. She tries to be pragmatic, but is prone to making the sort of dubious decisions that teenagers make when being out of the depth makes them a stranger in a seemingly familiar land they simply can't intuit is actually quite strange. The greater point though, I think, is she's looking for help in all the wrong places because the oppressive fear-riddled environment has generally prevented there from being a right one.

The turning point in the film comes when the guilty conscience of her hardened uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), previously abusive in trying to scare Ree out of pursuing her father, gets the best of him. Teardrop is in many ways the most interesting character because he's so conflicted, and Hawkes does an admirable job of making us feel many positive and negative things about him throughout the course of the film. Teardrop is something of a psychotic meth head, but he knows the secretive us against the law if not also each other world his brother ran in. No one is looking to go out of their way to mess with this intense, frightening man, but while he understands how to walk the tightrope better than Ree because he too has largely lived outside the law, he's also a strong candidate for the same sort of disposal his brother Jessup probably suffered if someone decides he's strayed too far from the code.

Much of the success of the film comes from how deeply Debra Granik immerses us in the fabric of the community. Winter's Bone is not a movie that overtly showcases it's atmosphere, but rather one that observes through brief but pertinent snapshots some genuine characteristic of the way the characters work, play, socialize, and/or posturing that gives them a history rooted in the community rather than an easy identification grounded in playing to our prejudices.

Granik's portrayal of violence is very telling of her values. The film is all about violence, but though the threat if not the actual action is looming over the majority of the film, all the real violence takes place off-screen. The concern here is not the dishing out of violence, which we are all quite familiar with, but rather the lingering, long term effects of it on the personality and the soul, as shown through the prematurely hardened, drawn and saddened human face. This is a world of care and abuse, the former for outsiders, both for those closest to you. It's a world that takes over people's lives, including Ree's mother who completely shut down to escape her husbands lawbreaking and womanizing.

Considerable authenticity is lent by the decision to shoot on broken down, rusted Missouri locations that yield a lived in, worn out feel that so few films are able to capture. Based on her evocation of the locale, one would think Granik was a local rather than a Cambridge born NYU grad. One feels that the David Gordon Green of George Washington would be at home amongst the rusted out cars with license plates dangling off their doors, their worn out tires resting comfortably against the front porch, but I fear that guy bought a one way ticket on the Pineapple Express. Not that Granik is any amazing stylist, or a director who ruminates and meditates, but she's incredibly successful at what she does do with the settings. Her casually observed matter of fact film instead functiones through the apparent absence of stylization, through making us absorb and feel without heightening the surroundings.

Debra Granik's films are quickly becoming known for breakout actress performances. Following Vera Farmiga in down to the Bone, Jennifer Lawrence is not only one of the two most promising newcomers along with Fish Tank's Katie Jarvis, but gives one of the best male or female performances of the 2010. She's subtle portrayal of Ree, underplaying everything to beautiful effect, really provides the depth and diversity that the coming of age rural noir mystery needs to work. Putting up the expected hardened, unflinching front to protect herself, her guarded strength and determination cracking when she can let her guard down and show her vulnerability. Her stubborn sense of preservation may win out if her sheer willpower is strong enough, but she is still scared, overwhelmed, exhausted, confused. It takes a lot to make the audience believe something good can come of proving your father is dead, especially when that father should, if his head were on straight, be taking care of her.



* Copyright 2011 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *