Winter’s Bone is an unflinchingly gritty Neo-noir thriller. From the trailer it looked absolutely stunning and was high on my list of movies to see this year. Now, after seeing it I can tell you that, while it is a fine film, I wasn’t completely bowled over.
Winter’s Bone is about 17 year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence). She lives in the Ozark Mountains with her mother (who is completely distant from reality) and her two younger siblings (boy and girl). She acts as the man and the woman of the house, taking care of herself, her brother and sister, and her mom. But when her drug-dealing father skips a court date and puts the house, in which Ree and her family lives in, up as bond, Ree has only a week to either get her dad to court or prove he’s dead, like so many believe.
Ree embarks on a devastating journey through the crazy redneck infested backwoods on a search for her father, while still doing everything in her power to keep the family together. This is a very slow, but somehow intense film that has a few flaws that prevents it from being great.
The film was directed by Debra Granik (whom I had never heard of prior to this movie). She directed one feature length film, Down to the Bone, prior to this, but as far as I know it wasn’t very good. Then Winter’s Bone hit the Sundance circuit and ended up going home with two prizes: Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Now, not knowing what it went up against I can’t tell you if it deserved the wins or not (mostly not for the latter), but it definitely deserved to be a candidate for the former.
The direction from Granik stays inside no boundaries and goes where it wants to. It depicts the life in poverty for the family expertly; I wouldn’t be surprised if she grew up in this kind of horrible situation. They live in a very crappy home, I’m not even sure if they have running water. The only form of entertainment is an old trampoline; work must always be done. Granik exquisitely portrays this with her camera — bringing these images to life and sorrow to our souls. She also has a style that is in the vein of a classic Noir film and a new gritty urban drama. She never does anything too flashy to distract from the story, but instead guides Ree on her quest for glory and search for knowledge. Granik’s direction is very powerful in this film, and I guarantee we will be seeing more from her.
The acting is pretty outstanding too. Jennifer Lawrence is a good (albeit quiet) lead. She doesn’t have long memorable monologues, she isn’t a crazy action hero busting bullets into everyone, and she isn’t a hard-ass either. She is just a teenage girl doing her duties. This is the first time I’ve seen Lawrence in a movie and she is unprecedentedly great. She plays the role with a stern reassurance throughout that makes us believe she is Ree, and she is in her incredible situation.
But the two best performances are almost two completely different roles. They go to John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree’s father’s only brother, and Dale Dickey as Merab, a crazy southern redneck lady who kicks ass then asks questions. Hawkes performance is by far the most memorable and most powerful. It has a deep core of emotion, with a layer of protectiveness, bad-assedness, and one of no emotion (a.k.a., Pure Evil) that only comes out once or twice. All he wants to do is help Ree, find his brother, and be a good person, but has a hard time achieving all of those. He is definitely a candidate for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As for Dickey, she is just a crazed woman trying to protect Ree from herself, and has a very odd way of doing it. Her performance is powerful and mean and also full of emotion.
The writing is where Winter’s Bone is flawed (it won a screenwriting award?). It was written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based off the novel of the same name. This is the first time the writers have collaborated and the outcome is . . . interesting. It is a great premise in a good blend of genres; Neo-noir, Gritty Crime/Detective, Matriarchal — but there are several shortcomings. For one, the pacing is very shifty; sometimes it’s very slow, and sometimes very intense — there is no in-between. Also, just the general flow of things are too manicured; sometimes Ree will just think of somewhere to go, go, find what she was looking for, then move on. It just seems too clichéd and not thought out enough. Sure the movie would have been longer (the 100 minute running time felt like 200) but maybe the extra time would have helped. And lastly, sometimes the characters and their motives were hard to identify with (maybe it’s because I don’t live like them, but not everyone does).
Overall, this is a strong movie that sadly stumbles due to some major writing inconsistencies. Everything is good otherwise; therefore I recommend one to definitely take a look at it, if possible. That being said, Winter’s Bone is not, however, a contender (in my eyes) for any accolades or awards other than Best Supporting Actor.