Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, "Winter's Bone" won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It's easy to see why the jury was so taken with it. Astonishing in its authenticity and never less than riveting, the picture captures with scalpel-like precision and specificity a tiny region of the United States whose subculturetheir language, their music, their rough-and-tumble way of livingwill prove foreign to outsiders. Indeed, the Ozark Mountains rarely, if ever, have gotten their dues within the realm of Hollywood filmmaking, and, even if they did, one can imagine just how watered-down and sugarcoated it would be. Working with highly cinematic source material and the added benefit of having shot on location in Missouri, writer-director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini make certain their portrayal is a raw, resolute, unsentimental one, showing things as they are without the hindrance of any sort of apparent bias.
Despite a setting so different from what most audiences are accustomed to, or even familiar with, "Winter's Bone" is an achingly universal tale with innately human conflicts. Keeping one's family together amidst seemingly insurmountable strife, the struggle to survive economic hardships, the mistakes of parents passed down as burdens to their offspringGranik tackles all of this and much more while delivering a hypnotic, steadily simmering story with the quietly nervous suspense of a great thriller. That the director trusts in the strength of her characters and the absorbing qualities of her narrative without the need to pep things up with excessive action and over-the-top plot turns only solidifies her vise-like grip on all facets of her filmmaking. As for her tough-willed, reasonably vulnerable protagonist, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), she acts at all times as our guide across a broken land infested with sharks, through a reality almost stranger than a Grimm fairy tale.
After her meth-cooking father disappears and word comes down from the authorities that he signed over the house to his bond, Ree is faced with an awful situation of caring for a nearly catatonic mother (Valerie Richards) and a young brother (Isaiah Stone) and sister (Ashlee Thompson) solely on her own. Vowing to track her dad downif he doesn't show up for his impending court date, their property will be stripped from themshe sets out across the bitter landscape she's always called home to investigate his whereabouts. In a place where most of the population is related and secrets are taken to the grave, Ree quickly finds herself in over her head, staring into the barrel of a frighteningly uncertain future.
It's not every day a motion picture comes along that as palpably captures a setting as "Winter's Bone." Filmed on actual properties throughout Missouri's Christian and Taney Counties, every image is awash in a striking legitimacy. From the rattling livestock auction visit, to the dilapidating single-floor homes speckled across the hills of an otherwise beautiful natural countryside, to the ancient automobiles stacked up like mini-junkyards, to the clotheslines and chicken pens out front and the stripped animal carcasses hanging next to the sheds, viewers not only receive a detailed visual of the world in which these characters exist, but they can practically feel the bone-chilling temps (even without the appearance of snow that was so vitally a character in the book) and smell the soot-filled chimney smoke looming in the air. The weighty atmosphere, fraught with mystery, emanates from each shot, while the close sense of community nonetheless always on the verge of a temperamental or drug-fueled eruption is accurately conceived. Area-specific music, tooa collection of traditional hymns and bluegrass balladsis gotten just right.
The people Ree Dolly comes in contact with on her trek are memorable, to say the least, defiant individuals who could prove to be potential villains or temporary saviors. The supporting actorsamong them, John Hawkes (2007's "American Gangster
") as loose cannon Uncle Teardrop, feeling a sense of protectiveness over his only brother's children; Dale Dickey (2009's "The Perfect Getaway
") as Merab, a short-fused enigma of empathy and viciousness in her actions toward Ree; newcomer Lauren Sweetser as Gail, Ree's best friend, already with baby and in a faltering marriage; Shelley Weggener (2002's "Punch-Drunk Love
") as Sonya, the Dollys' neighbor; and Sheryl Lee (1998's "Vampires
") as April, a former lover of Ree's father with key information to give herstrike not a single false note, each one looking not like performers but like real residents of the Ozark Mountains. Waiting and wondering who Ree will meet next and where her search will take her is crucial in keeping intrigue high and never losing the mounting thread of consternation consistently near the forefront. The anticipation that something is bound to happen, as opposed to the ultimate occurrence itself, is where urgency and tension reside, and director Debra Granik is well aware of this fortuitous notion. Too few artists working within the thriller genre these days understand this.
For a 19-year-old whose most prominent role to date has been as a regular on the recently-cancelled TBS sitcom "The Bill Engvall Show," Jennifer Lawrence is nothing short of a revelation as Ree Dolly. In every scene and having to carry the project squarely on her shoulders, Lawrence is a major force, creating a complex character who has had to grow up too fast, yet still, one glimpses, is very much a child. Watch closely a sequence where she meets with an Army recruiter, naively expecting to instantly receive $40,000 if she signs up, the money being her one and only motive for sacrificing the next five years of her life. When the recruit questions her reasoning and, in turn, matter-of-factly lays down what going into the military would entail, the equal parts defeat and embarrassment read across Lawrence's face is that of a near-brilliant actor who doesn't realize how good she is. Meanwhile, the love Ree has for her siblings is imperative for her character arc to work, while the helplessness she feels for not having a mother to guide hershe's there in the physical form, but has mentally shut down almost completelyis maybe the film's most poignant element. A scene where Ree fruitlessly attempts to get through to her mom is devastating, the life in her eyes replaced with a chilling vacancy. Lawrence has the offbeat accent and turns of phrase down pat, but her purely naturalistic performance goes beyond the technical and profoundly grabs the heart.
Where "Winter's Bone" leads is as plausible as it is integral, even when the occasional narrative convenience occurs (a few times, characters awkwardly show up just as critical info to the plot is announced). These instances, however, are easily overlooked, only standing out initially because the rest of the film is so starkly organic. Sobering but unfailingly engrossing, uncompromising yet not without a certain hope by the end, "Winter's Bone" is the kind of original, blessedly independent work that major studios simply refuse to make. As dead-hearted remakes, sequels and superhero movies saturate the marketplace, thoughtful, emotionally viable quality works like this one must be actively sought out and supported or else they disappear without notice. Much like Ree's ordeal, it sure doesn't seem fair, but that's the way it is.