Winter’s Bone (2010 Winter’s Bone Productions)
An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Laura Sweetser and Garret Dillahunt. Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan (screenplay, and Daniel Woodrell (novel). Produced by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini.
Though it seems like backwards logic, independent filmmakers enjoy a great deal more freedom than producers backed by big studio investors. Unencumbered by prying eyes, bean counters and studio heads, the independent film director’s limited budget means the creativity applies not just to the product itself, but to the entire production. In that vain, director Debra Granik lays out a gritty, sober story in Winter’s Bone.
With an eclectic cast of relative unknowns mixed with “oh, that guy” actors and actresses, Winter’s Bone tells the story of a dirt-poor rural farm family in the blighted Midwest struggling to survive in the harsh winter climate and even harsher economic reality. There’s none of that romantic, living-off-the-fat-of-the-land nonsense in Winter’s Bone. They hunt and eat squirrels because it’s either that or die. The only other way to make ends meet is cooking and selling crank, where one bad move means you die in an explosion. Think of it as an even darker Grapes of Wrath for our time.
The story follows 17-year old Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who’s assumed the role of family matriarch to her depressed mother and younger siblings while her absent father Jessup—a crank dealer—is running from the law. Ree is tough as nails and is trying to pass the toughness onto her 12-year old brother Sonny and toddler sister Ashlee. As the family’s surrogate mother, Ree has to make adult decisions to save what little the family owns when her father jumps bail, threatening to put the Dollys on the the street. Throughout Winter’s Bone, Ree shows her strength, her fear, her vulnerability and her breaking point as her search for Jessup takes her down the dark paths of her family and and townspeople.
It’s a desolate, gripping story where winning and losing and happy endings are not an option when you’re just fighting for your own survival in the middle of nowhere surrounded by crooks, crankheads and meth labs.
Jennifer Lawrence turns in a stunning performance as the film’s lead character. Ree’s toughness is not some feigned, action-hero creation, but born out of a life where she’s forced to grow up fast or suffer the consequences. John Hawkes is brilliant as the complex, gruff and sometimes frightening Teardrop, Ree’s uncle, whose true intentions move from light to dark and back again.
Dark, isolated and solemn, Winter’s Bone is not about pretty people leading glamourous lives. It’s about hard, salt-of-the-earth men and women younger than their faces reflect doing what they have to do with little judgment for one another. Think of it as something of a Boyz N’ the Hood for people of rural, impoverished Ozarks. Winter’s Bone is the little film that could in this year’s Oscar race.
***-1/2 stars (out of five)