April 2024

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone" examines rural poverty | MPR News

DIRECTOR: Debra Granik

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes


The third film from director Debra Granik and already an indie awards darling at the Sundance Film Festival, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is a slow burn drama with some thriller elements whose indie sensibilities shine through loud and clear. Were this a sudio product, this would be pumped up with more conventional thriller elements, but here there’s no action sequences. There’s no overt straightforward conventional “villains” (albeit quite a few unsavory individuals), and the lead character isn’t an action heroine, just a 17-year-old girl with no extraordinary abilities beyond her wits and guts.

Winter’s Bone transpires in the Ozark Mountain backwoods of Missouri, in an impoverished insular community where people rely on themselves and minimal help from their neighbors. Meth gangs and the labs where they “cook” are an open secret, but there is no greater cardinal sin than snitching to “the law”. 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is caretaker to two younger siblings and an invalid mother, singlehandedly holding down the fort while considering joining the Army not because she really wants to, but for the hefty sign-up bonus that her family could put to good use. But Ree is having a more immediate problem. Her father Jessup, a meth cooker known for run-ins with the law, is a no-show for his court date, and worse, Ree learns he put up the family house as collateral to make bail. Now he’s a “runner”, and if he can’t be found, the house will be seized and Ree and her family will be homeless. Ree turns a dogged amateur investigator, but she has little help and few allies besides an uneasy one in the form of her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who advises her to drop it. Everywhere she goes, she’s met by tight lips and hostile glares. But Ree is not easily daunted, and when she finds reason to believe Jessup is dead, her mission shifts from convincing him to turn himself in to somehow proving he’s dead to square things with the law.

Winter’s Bone is low-key and sedate. Tension is derived from uneasy situations and unpredictable characters, not from conventional thriller elements (there are no gunfights or shootouts or car chases). There’s a sense of unease and slow burn tension; even in scenes where nothing really “happens”, we’re aware of the uneasy sense that something could. The movie isn’t a whodunit, and anyone who gets overly invested in the question of who killed Jessup is in for disappointment, because the movie isn’t interested in answering that question (although there’s some likely suspects). Even for Ree and Teardrop, it’s beside the point. They don’t want to know, because that knowledge is dangerous. Ree’s only concern is first finding her father and convincing him to turn himself in, and later, when she comes to believe he is no longer among the living, to somehow prove his death to void the lean on the family home. Director Granik, unmistakably filming in real locations and sometimes, one strongly suspects, with real locals as the background extras, exhibits a forceful and immersive sense of place and atmosphere with a strong feel of authenticity. If Ree owns a cell phone, she never uses it. There is no TV; her younger siblings play with their toys—many of them homemade—and dogs, and jump on a trampoline or climb over bales of hay. The house is heated by a wood-burning stove. The only technology is electricity and a few beat-up pickup trucks and cars (though Ree doesn’t own one and has trouble securing transportation for her search). The supporting cast is well-chosen, populated by people with hard weathered faces and tight lips and a feel of authenticity (one wonders if Granik cast some real locals to fill out smaller background roles).

Which is not to say that Winter’s Bone is perfect. Especially early on, Ree’s traipsing around having unproductive encounters with one unfriendly individual after another is repetitive enough to get a little tiresome (although in a couple cases we circle back around later). The supporting characters we meet fleetingly are hard to keep them and their exact relation to Ree straight, with only Teardrop emerging as a distinct individual (and that not until he’s popped up a couple times). The plot at times is unnecessarily convoluted for what is at its essence a fairly simple and straightforward narrative. In fact, the overall plot feels a bit slight when all is said and done. Something important is resolved, but in a rather low-key, anti-climactic (arguably underwhelming) fashion, and there’s a sense of “is that all”? On the other hand, a case could be made for it being admirable that Granik tells the story she wants to tell in its low-key fashion without trying to “pump it up” with any more dramatic or more conventional thriller elements.

Winter's Bone: Chilling to the marrow - The Globe and Mail

Relative newcomer 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, whose prior resume was mostly small roles in TV shows and little-seen movies—although even without this movie, her profile is set to rise by virtue of already having been cast in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, co-starring with Foster and Mel Gibson—makes for a sturdy lead, playing Ree with an unforced, down-to-earth conviction that never slips into feeling forced or overacted. Ree is largely stoic, but she’s a compelling protagonist because she’s smart and feisty, and tough enough to confront scary men not because she wants to, but because the well-being of her younger siblings and mother come before her personal safety. This isn’t the first time director Granik has been something of a “star maker” introducing a fresh face to more widespread notice; the lead in her previous film Down to the Bone was a then-unknown Vera Farmiga. Apart from Lawrence, the most distinct of the myriad supporting characters is John Hawkes’ Teardrop, who initially seems as hostile and dangerous as any of the other seedy characters she encounters but gradually shows himself to be a little more complex, a man who clearly cares for his niece in his own rough fashion but never entirely loses his edgy undertones (or overtones). Apart from a couple low-key character actors whom some viewers might recognize like Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt as the Sheriff, the rest of the cast is comprised of unknowns or near-unknowns, but the other actors are well-chosen and have a look and feel of authenticity.

In keeping with its desire to emphasize character, setting, and atmosphere over more conventional narrative elements, Winter’s Bone unspools at its own leisurely pace which some viewers may find admirable while others may find it frustrating or underwhelming. Perhaps, in the end, it’s a little of all of the above.