Winter's Bone (United States, 2010)June 19, 2010
Winter's Bone offers a case study in the essential philosophical differences between independent motion picture thrillers and Hollywood/mainstream ones. The third feature from director Debra Granik and winner of two awards at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (including the Grand Jury Prize), Winter's Bone is character-oriented. There are no gunfights or shoot-outs. The protagonist is an atypical choice: a 17-year old girl living in the rural South. She possesses no extraordinary abilities besides her intelligence and resilience; if you hit her, she will bleed. The "villains" have readily identifiable motivations that have nothing to do with mass murder or world domination. The pace is usually languid, allowing the viewer to soak up an atmosphere pregnant with danger, but is occasionally punctuated by moments of violence or extreme tension. And, as is often the case with films that veer off a familiar, formula-paved track, it's tough to see the end until it arrives.
That's not to say Winter's Bone is perfect. The plot at times is needlessly convoluted for what is, in essence, a fairly straightforward storyline. The relationships between various characters are inadequately explained, creating confusion about how individual B knows individual A and what, if any, bloodline they share. Winter's Bone doesn't seem concerned about revealing these details, perhaps assuming the specifics are incidental to the narrative and taking the time to explain them might be more trouble than it's worth. In the end, perhaps the only thing we need to know is that the main character is Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and, despite her baby face, she's as tough and self-sufficient as they come.
Ree is an amazing individual. At age 17, she is mother and father to her two younger siblings, Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), and caregiver for her catatonic mother. With the help of friends and neighbors, she is able to hold things together for her family with little money and minimal help from the outside. She lives by the mantra: "Never ask for something that should be offered." She exists not for herself, but for others, and her personal dreams and desires have been subordinated to the needs of her sister, brother, and mother. She wants to join the army not because it's her heart's desire but because the $40,000 signing bonus wouls be a windfall for her cash-strapped family. But there are more immediate problems. Her father Jessup, a meth cooker whose adult life has been punctuated by run-ins with the cops, was recently arrested and, in order to get out on bail, he put his house up as collateral. Once free, he disappeared becoming, in the parlance of the bondsman searching for him, "a runner." Now, Ree must locate Jessup and, if he is dead, prove that he no longer walks the planet, or be turned out of her house. No one in the area is willing to talk openly about what might have happened to the man, including his brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who warns Ree that poking around in the wrong places could get her killed. Everywhere she goes, she is met by stony silence and unfriendly glares. The one man who may hold the key to revealing Jessup's whereabouts, whether above or below ground, will say nothing because "talking just causes witnesses."
Winter's Bone transpires in the back woods of Missouri, where modern technology appears to be decades behind the rest of the world. If Ree has a phone, she never uses it. There is no television; the kids play with their pets and use a trampoline out back. The house is heated by a wood-burning stove. The only concession to the modern world is electricity and the presence of old, beat-up cars and pick-up trucks (although Ree does not own one). The sense of place is gripping and visceral, as are the relationships between neighbors, who hold out the helping hand to one another while silently warning against snitching. There is no greater sin in this community than providing information to the Law.
For many, this is the first opportunity to see the work of 19-year old Jennifer Lawrence, whose career to this point has been limited to small parts in TV shows and obscure movies. Her profile will soon escalate with the release of The Beaver, where she shares the screen with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson, but Winter's Bone represents her first opportunity to show her capabilities, and she does so with the kind of forceful, convincing portrayal that would catch the attention of the Academy if the Oscars honored films this small. This is the second time director Granik has introduced the movie-going world to an impressive talent. The lead in her previous feature, Down to the Bone, was a then-unknown Vera Farmiga.
In keeping with its desire to emphasize setting, atmosphere, and character over narrative drive, Winter's Bone proceeds at its own pace, and the thrust of the story changes near the middle of the movie. Suspense arises from the inherent dangers of certain situations, the mercurial nature of various characters, and the lack of predictability about how things will be resolved. There are no surprise twists or sudden switchbacks - the story progresses logically, if not formulaically. Winter's Bone is a welcome reminder that thrillers don't have to be loud and boisterous to grab the attention and keep it captive. Sometimes, a forceful sense of place and an eye-opening lead performance are sufficient to accomplish that.
Winter's Bone (United States, 2010)
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Brezahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser, Ashlee Thomspon, Isaiah Stone
Screenplay: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
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