Writer/director Debra Granik opens her quietly stunning Winter’s Bone with a shot of a ramshackle little house nestled in the Ozarks that immediately sets the place and the mood. A strum of a banjo and a woman’s heartbroken and warbling voice accompany the shot, which is followed by scenes of seemingly happy children playing in their yard. This is their home. And they don’t want to leave it — no way, no how.
Seventeen year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in an assured and definitive performance that will likely haunt what should rightfully be a long and flourishing career) is the accidental matriarch of this clan of kids. Momma is hopped-up on pills to the point of being mute and helpless. Meanwhile, the law is about to take this home out from under them if Ree’s deadbeat, crank-cookin’ poppa don’t show up at court for his hearing. Thus begins Ree’s quest to find daddy come hell or high water. Following the pattern of a classic noir detective story, Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel follows Ree’s journey to find out the truth about what happened to pop. As she traverses the bleak and dangerously inbred hills of Missouri, she encounters all varieties of kinsfolk, some of who would just as soon shoot her as they would give her the shirt off their backs.
Ree Dolly is the classic “wiser beyond her years” heroine, but Granik makes it clear she’s still just a kid with a lot to learn, and Lawrence is so natural and unshakable in her performance you can’t help but root for her. With steadfast and stubborn determinism she teaches her brother and sister how to shoot, cook and skin squirrels (in a scene that will leave PETA fuming) while boldly goin’ places she shouldn’t be goin’ with people she shouldn’t be knowin’ trying to find her father. Yet there’s still a naivety about her when she teaches the kids, “Never ask for what should be offered,” and how her dreams to escape (and make money for the family) by joining the Army are crushed when she is told she can’t bring her brother and sister along with her.
Winter’s Bone is marked by a memorable soundtrack of “traditionals” and blue-grass, stark but beautiful cinematography of the Ozarks (courtesy of Michael McDonough), and finely wrought performances. The supporting cast is chock full of grizzled and compelling “locals” and veteran character actors at the top of their game. John Hawkes is especially superb as Uncle Teardrop, whose character has the most surprising turnabout, while Garret Dillahunt (still with his Deadwood-style deliveries) appears as a Sheriff, and Sheryl Lee (finally having escaped Twin Peaks only to be lost in these rolling hills) makes a welcome cameo as a kind-hearted ex-lover of Ree’s daddy.
Granik keeps things real and gritty, but she never wallows in the poverty and shows small acts of kindness and extreme acts of cruelty as equal sides of the same coin. If one complaint could be raised it would be the lack of suspense, which is counter-intuitive to the noirish narrative framework, mood of dread and foreshadowing set up in the first two acts. We never doubt that Ree will find a way out of her predicament, and you just know by looking at Lawrence’s face that those kids will be alright…somehow…someway. But maybe that was Granik’s intent, and Lawrence was just the actress to help realize it on-screen.
In a an all-too knowing piece of dialogue, after her best friend comes through following a request for help, Ree tells her, “You know, you’re who I always thought you were.” When you first see Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence let’s you know exactly who she is. There is no doubt in her character, no fear in the performance. And you know instantly, one way or another, she’s gonna come through for them kids.
Winter’s Bone’s success belongs to Granik’s puppet-master as much as it does to Lawrence’s puppet. They are two rising stars on opposite sides of the camera to watch, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a finer American independent film all year.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Check out the spin elsewhere across the blogosphere. Winter’s Bone is that rare summer breed…a film to talk about:
- The film’s musical consultant and one of the featured singers, Marideth Sisco, has her very own blog on WordPress detailing the film’s buzz, her work…and as she puts it, My Life and Times.
- Movies Over Matter takes the other side and delivers a review flying against the conventional wisdom.
- Over at My Own Worst Critic, Micah Sachs explores the film’s “backwoods exoticism.”
- The Landmark art-house theater in Philly (the good ol’ Ritz Five) where I saw the film has posted an exclusive interview with writer/director Debra Granik on the importance of the film’s setting and music.