Winter’s bone is a brutal and beautiful film about one girl’s struggle to look after her family in the harsh environment of the Ozarks. It is hypnotic, unique and brilliantly acted.
It is also that rare thing: an independent film that still manages mainstream appeal. And that’s only possible because of the power of the story and the skilled direction that prevents any navel gazing and message ramming. This is a subtle, brilliant film about a young girl searching for her errant, troubled father, who has jumped bail and placed the family home as collateral in the event that he doesn’t show up for his hearing. He disappears. Unless Ree can find him, the family will be left destitute.
The 17 year old Ree is incredibly acted by Jennifer Lawrence, who is searching for clues from mostly silent, occasionally violent and always unpredictable neighbours. Her strength, determination and commitment to not break the strange laws and codes of silence in her community are heartbreaking to watch- and all because Lawrence’s performance shows a huge range of emotions, sometime with just a flick of the eyes.
The film draws you in to a strange, almost post-apocalyptic world, rife with crystal meth addiction, poverty and alcoholism. Slowly, as you soak up the details and the way characters interact with each other, you begin to understand this is like no other community you have seen before on screen. And nothing rams this point home more than the powerhouse performance of John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop.
He exists on the brink of existence, soulless, almost zombiefied. But he is still alert, primal, ready to fight. He is Ree’s companion, (in the loosest sense of the word) accompanying her, sometimes against her will. Though whether he is doing this to protect his family, protect the secret of Ree’s father, or simply to assert his authority and territorial rights, it is never quite clear. (“You always scared me.” Says Ree. “That’s because you’re smart.”) His performance is mesmerizing. (And the Oscar should have been his.)
As the story unfolds, Ree’s struggles becomes Herculean. Her courage in the face of brutal neighbours intent on protecting their own interests, no matter what the cost, is often harrowing. Ree wakes up after being beaten up by townswomen, and is asked; “what are we gonna do with you baby girl?” She replies, “kill me I guess.” Her stoicism makes her predicament all the more difficult to watch. She forces herself in to dangerous situations, prepared for the possible consequences, yet she carries on.
It’s an amazing film about survival, about family and loyalty. It is also a film about addiction and the effects it can have on families and whole communities. It’s a fascinating study of a hidden culture; this lawless place, the harsh, brutal existence of its inhabitants; is fascinating and feels real.
So, two truly amazing performances, by Lawrence and Hawkes, in a uniformly brilliant cast. Delicate and detailed direction from Granik. Beautiful photography, a subtle script and amazing locations. It all adds up to make Winter’s Bone brilliant. It makes it a modern masterpiece.