Directed by Debra Granik
In the world of the Ozark Mountains, there are some pretty sketchy characters to be found. Winter's Bone is a pretty gritty portrayal of the darkest corners of this world. Quickly growing as a festival hit, the film recently won the Dramatic Award at Sundance Film Festival, and Roadside Attractions won the bidding war for distribution. Since then, it's been playing at various festivals growing further and further on word of mouth. When I finally got around to seeing it for myself, I was already holding onto a world of expectation.
Set during a harsh winter, it tells the story of a Meth-raddled town near the Ozark mountains. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a seventeen-year-old, hard-boiled young woman. With her mother sick and nearly catatonic, and her father a drug cooking and drug dealing runaway, she is forced to look after her two younger siblings. Ree has managed to stay off the junk that has plagued her entire town. Every neighbor and every family member is foiled by serious addiction and malaise, and she does her best to protect her brother and sister from those haunting characters.
Things take an unfortunate turn, though, when Ree is told that her father has disappeared and put their house up for bond. She has a few weeks to find him and turn him in or she, her siblings and her sick mother will be thrown out of their home. She visits the obvious suspects first, including close family and friends of her father. They all offer ominous warnings that she should end her search before she gets herself and her family into serious trouble. These intimidations don't affect Ree's determination.
What follows is a series of encounters that get deeper and deeper into the drug-addled world that she has struggled so hard to avoid her entire life. It isn't too long until she encounters real danger in the form of her father's drug partners, and it becomes obvious that her father has probably been killed. Her search then shifts to finding the body and keeping a roof over her brother and sister's head. The only help she gets comes in the form of her addict uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who has trouble containing emotional stability with all of his vices.
What's striking about this new film from Debra Granik (director of 2004's Down To The Bone) is the unrelenting vision of hopelessness of this sketchy society. My ignorance on the conditions of Arkansas mountain towns is glaring, but there is an air of authenticity here. Ree cannot count on anyone being clean, which makes her journey that much more daunting. In our dejected economic times, it seems plausible that an entire town can nosedive into drug addiction, and Winter's Bone does an excellent job of commenting without being blatant.
Following Ree is key to the film's success. She is innocent, but she is not naive. She does not wander into the dark corners without knowledge of what could be awaiting her. She gives a pure view, but we are still lead by someone who knows where they're going. It is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object: Ree does not worry herself over the danger that she could face on her search, because she knows that being stranded without a home in this horrific town is worse than any punishment that can be inflicted on her for snooping.
It helps that the film is headed by a tremendous performance by Jennifer Lawrence (she's done a lot of television work which I'm not familiar with, but she will be in Jodie Foster's upcoming, much-anticipated film, The Beaver). Her role as Ree showcases ultimate resolution and wisdom well beyond her years. In a situation like that, children like Ree are forced to grow up much earlier then they are supposed to, and Lawrence does an excellent job of keeping Ree's precociousness while always maintaining her stone cold resolve.
I'm not sure how Winter's Bone could have possibly lived up to my expectation. With all its great moments and strong writing, there was still something that was missing for me. I found myself not totally ingrained in the narrative at moments, and that may be because of the story's redundant nature (she asks someone where her father is and the response is usually dismissive). All that said, it is a strong film with authentic performances and a unique voice. I'm glad that it has been successful on the festival circuit, I'm just not sure it's the near-masterpiece that most have saying it is.