From the Ozarks comes the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough seventeen-year-old girl looking for her missing father amidst an impoverished community, in a grey cloud-covered landscape littered with debris and garbage and populated with meth heads. The people standing in her way? Her drug-dealing family.
Ree takes care of two siblings and a mother with mental problems. She cooks, she washes, she chops wood, she shoots squirrels for food. Life is hard but at least she has a house. But Jessup, her father, is due in court and he signed away his house and property to get out on bail and if he doesn’t show up Ree and her family lose everything. When one of the most talked about movies of the year is about a frivolous ballerina going desperate because she can’t dance perfectly, here’s a movie that dares to tell a tale of true despair.
Ree starts investigating, asking her relatives if they’ve seen or know where Jessup is, but she only receives indifference, warnings and intimidation. Ree, who knows her family is mixed up in drugs, is getting involved in matters that women in her community shouldn’t talk about. Furthermore Jessup’s secret whereabouts hides a deeper secret that could harm her relatives. Here family matters nothing when staying out of jail is at stake.
Winter’s Bone, efficiently directed by Debra Granik and co-written with Anne Rossellini, is an engrossing, suspenseful thriller which rewards viewers looking for an intelligent screenplay and great acting.
Let’s begin with the acting, whose laurels must be divided between Lawrence and John Hawkes, who plays the frightening and ambiguous uncle Teardrop. Lawrence not only captures the emotional core of a young woman who had to learn to survive alone at an early age, she also trained for the physical aspect of her performance. For this role she learned to chop wood and skin squirrels. The latter is graphically shown in the movie. This self-reliance shows in her stubbornness, determination and inability to heed warnings for her own good. The moment she sets out to find her father she doesn’t give up. Although physically unimposing, Lawrence transmits independence and confidence. She gets beaten down, but she always gets back up with renewed resolve.
Hawkes, whose only fault is that he should have had more screen time, is just as good in a subtler role. A meth head, he looks like a human scarecrow, thin and frail. And yet he transmits fear to everyone around him. Teardrop is a fascinating character, more so than Ree. When Ree goes to him, he tells her to quit searching and says he won’t go around asking questions. She insists only for him to nearly choke her. You never know where he stands or what he’ll do. Ree, complex as she may be, remains the same, but Teardrop experiences a slow change as he’s drawn into her investigation.
The characters speak sparingly. The bleakness around them pared down their speech to the bare essentials. The rest is communicated through body language and facial expressions. Although the screenplay is good in the dialogue that fleshes out their personalities, it is excellent for what remains unsaid, for what is transmitted through subtext. Teardrop’s last scene with Ree, for instance, is a final farewell between the two, although it’s never spelled out. Ree’s siblings are present and they can’t understand it. But the viewer who has been paying attention will guess Teardrop’s fate.
In the movie attention is given to the role of women, family ties and the power of rumours. Let’s consider the scene when Ree talks with a sheriff. At this point her dad is missing and she and her family have little to feed on. Her neighbours are aware that she’s hungry, but she’s too proud to ask for help. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” she tells her brother. Then the law arrives. Ree keeps mum. The neighbours get nervous. The sheriff leaves. Later a neighbour comes in with a box of food. There are no good intentions in this movie, though: this visit is just an opportunity to suss out what the sheriff wanted and to remind Ree to keep her mouth shut. She’s rewarded for her good behaviour.
Ree knows her family is full of criminals but doesn’t condemn them – it’s the world she lives in. Other options are few. Her friend, Gail (Laureen Sweetser), married and with a baby, is Ree’s opposite – dependent on her husband, forced to ask him permission to do everything. Ree can also join the army, tough as she is, but her family needs her. And that’s it for options.
Ree’s loose family is not like other cinematic crime families. These are not the Corleone. In this year’s Animal Kingdom a criminal is murdered by the police and his brothers immediately retaliate. Here there’s no rush or senseless bravado. Jessup is missing within a closed community. There are no mysteries; everyone knows, they just chose to ignore it. Ree breaks a social norm by sticking her nose in these affairs. She gets people talking, spreading rumours. In a community where people talk only when necessary, people don’t like stories running around.
Winter’s Bone is a rare thriller. Family relationships prevail over pointless action. When Granik shows violence it serves to reveal the characters’ personalities. Granik’s camera is sober and unflinching in its portrayal of human ferocity and cruelty. For most of the movie, however, Granik’s style is invisible. She doesn’t show off. She has a precision similar to Clint Eastwood’s. Her presence is mostly felt in the atmosphere of tension and dread that accompanies Ree in her journey. The rest is just brilliant actors working in tandem with one of the best screenplays of the year. The result is an excellent movie which, with a meagre budget of $2 million, puts to shame most of the big Hollywood productions competing against it for the Oscars.
Director: Debra Granik
Screenplay: Daniel Woodrell (novel), Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey
Runtime: 100 min