Remember when movies used to be intelligent, gripping, and leave you lost for words when the credits rolled? You’d easily be forgiven for thinking that those days were long gone, lost in mist of the 70s, but you’d be wrong. Director Debra Granik’s (Down To The Bone) sophomore film, Winter’s Bone, will more than satisfy even the most ardent cinephile’s longing for those pre-event movie days.
An intense and uncompromising look at the Missouri underclass through the eyes of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, Winter’s Bone has already been tipped for Oscar glory come February, and it’s easy to see why.
Set in the heart of a poverty-stricken, drug dealing community in the remote Ozark Woods, the film slowly pieces together the mystery of her father’s disappearance, through Ree’s journey into the backwoods and beyond to find him.
About to lose the family home to the bail men, Ree is forced to confront the darkness at the heart of her community and her family, exposing drug rings, misogyny and a horrifying code of honour in order to keep her family safe. Played by relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (Devil You Know), displaying a maturity rarely seen in women twice her age, Ree’s fight for survival and the truth, is, by turns, unsettling, violent and incredibly bleak, but it’s also utterly compelling.
Based on the book of the same name, Winter’s Bone is a film of intense juxtapositions. The Missouri woods are bleak but beautiful, 3-year-old girls fire shotguns, volumes are spoken with few words said, and 1950s values clash with a 21st century morality, giving the story and its inevitable conclusion an even greater impact.
On Ree’s journey, we discover an America where drug dealing is so ingrained even small children are indoctrinated, where women are subjugated with few rights and even less education, and simply surviving the winter can depend on squirrel meat.
It’s the treatment of women and the harsh living conditions facing Ree and her family that are most jarring about the movie. The men in the gang refuse to deal with her because she’s a girl, and the women in the gang mete out justice to other women, as men aren’t allowed to lay a hand on any female that doesn’t belong to them.
In a film of contrasts, this open misogyny is in stark contrast to Ree’s obvious survival skills. At one point she teaches her 3-year-old sister to hunt squirrel, which they then skin and eat for dinner, because it’s that or go hungry. As a provider, a carer and a protector, Ree is shown on more than one occasion to be more than a match for any man.
The central mystery, locating Ree’s father before the bail men take their home, is tautly played, and although the outcome is something of an open secret from the second act, the final reveal is shocking nonetheless.
Something of a redneck noir, the themes in the movie may be well worn. As a genre exercise, it’s an outstanding example, but what makes Winter’s Bone unique is the female central character. Ree’s not a woman that Hollywood likes to see too much of. There are no chick flick moments here, no final scene redemption, no laughter through tears. She’s raw, she likes guns and doesn’t even own a lipstick. She’s a rare character, indeed, and the film benefits immensely from her presence.
Not that the rest of the characters aren’t as well drawn. Ree’s psycho uncle, Teardrop, wrestles with honouring his gang affiliations over loyalty to his family, and his struggle is particularly well done. Played by John Hawkes, (whom you may recognize from From Dusk Til Dawn, in the role of his life), Teardrop’s interactions with Ree are some of the most affecting of the movie.
A superb thriller, Winter’s Bone is full of great stuff. It’s intelligent, well written, entirely non-patronising and skilfully shot, but it’s Lawrence’s performance that raises it from great to remarkable. Her intensity and ability to convey determination mixed with hopelessness will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. As career-defining roles go, this one is definitely up there. Ree Dolly is not an easy character to do justice to, but Lawrence does exactly that.
Miss this movie at your peril. It’s an almost perfect example of how films should be made and more than deserves your hard earned.