Winter’s Bone (2010)

26 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ree Dolly is an unflinching, tough, 17-year-old Southern girl who does not take “no” for an answer and believes that anything not offered shouldn’t be asked for. She acts as a parent to her two younger siblings, while her real mother is mentally absent and her father, a meth cooker, is arrested. She cares for them all (except her father, of course) with welfare and help from a friendly neighbor—they all live in the backlands of the Ozarks, near the Arkansas border line. She is also the most engaging movie heroine in a long time. In Debra Granik’s film, “Winter’s Bone,” she is forced to carry a task to save her family’s property. She is an ordinary person who must rise to an occasion.

The conflict: Ree’s father, who was arrested for cooking meth, is missing and he put everything on bond, including the family house. Ree is visited by the sheriff, who tells her on the house porch that if her dad doesn’t show up at court, she and her family lose the house. She looks into the woods in thought when the sheriff asks, “You got someplace to go?” She says, “I’ll find him.” The sheriff doesn’t believe her—“Girl, I been lookin’.” She looks back at him and sternly repeats, “I said I’ll find him.” And just like that, she sets out to question many family members for clues or answers as to where her father is.

The whole family, except for Ree who would want her siblings to never fall into the habit as well, cooks methamphetamine and keeps to themselves. They give wary looks to outsiders (like the sheriff and the bond trader) who visit Ree and constantly remind her that the house will no longer be their property. Ree’s uncle Teardrop doesn’t know where his brother is and advises Ree not to go looking for him either. But she does, and this leads to brutal confrontations—one of which brings a league of mountain women to beat her hard. (When she comes to, she asks if they’ll kill her. One of them says they were thinking about it.) It seems like this search will jeopardize her life, but she will never stop looking for her father, dead or alive.

“Winter’s Bone” was filmed on location in one of the bleakest of living environments. Living in the backlands of the Ozarks, the rural area looks like it used to a town but is now caught in a Depression-type state. There are houses, but there are also shacks, sheds, and piles of junk almost all around. With only a few modern conveniences, the locals live here in relaxation. But from another perspective, it’s depressing rather than relaxing. I loved how director Debra Granik framed every shot to make us see something new about this place. Ree has lived here her whole life and is becoming a strong, independent woman and her younger siblings are as cheerful as they can be, without knowing what misfortune they have. This may not be true, but maybe the reason that the mother is mentally absent is because of the depression of her surroundings—maybe she realized the difficulty of her situations in parenting and couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe. But anyway, the rest of the people in this rural area are suspicious, violent, and cold-hearted.

Ree Dolly is played by Jennifer Lawrence in an excellent, star-making performance. There is no wrong note in this performance. She has a convincing, forceful personality that really brings this character to life. Also very effective is John Hawkes, as fearsome uncle Teardrop, and Dale Dickey as one of the mountain women who challenges Ree, and also assaults her midway through the film. There are other effective performances from amateur actors who make their first appearances in this film and it’s amazing to see how natural they are—there is no cliché dealing with their characters.

“Winter’s Bone” has suspense, a compelling main character, intriguing supporting characters, a murky look to the Ozarks, and a story worth telling. To me, this is one of the best movies of 2010 and I certainly hope this film is remembered as years go by, most notably for Jennifer Lawrence’s flawless portrayal of an ordinary person rising to the occasion.

NOTE: “Winter’s Bone” also won the Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance for “Best Picture” and “Best Adapted Screenplay.” It also won the Golden Rock Award at the Little Rock Film Festival—at the awards gala (I won an award there too—a screenwriting award), I was fortunate enough to meet Shelley Waggener, the actress who played Sonya, the friendly neighbor who helps Ree and her family.

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