Director: Debra Granik
Reviewed: 1 July 2010, 26 June 2010
jamesintexas rating: **** (4 stars = Highest Rating)
I am always on the lookout for a summer movie that shines with creativity, a unique vision and offers me a window into a world that I have never seen or imagined. Summer seems to be the site of sequels and vapid action films (of which I can be a fan), but Winter's Bone is no sequel or overblown special effects extravaganza. Rather, this quiet, intense film is simply the best American film so far released in 2010.
Southwestern Missouri along the Arkansas border is the setting, bracing up against the Ozark Mountains. It is winter, the characters wear gloves and hats, and it looks frigid; it appears to be that period in November where it gets really, truly cold without the arrival of snow yet. Set against a simultaneously bleak and beautiful landscape of trees, mountains, and animals who follow the characters into town on the way to school, Ree Dolly (a revelatory Jennifer Lawrence, future Oscar nominee for Best Actress) raises her two younger siblings and cares for her invalid mother in a small cabin in the woods while harboring a secret desire to join the Army. Her high school seems to present two options: motherhood and the military. When Sheriff Baskin (the always watchable Garret Dillahunt, Tommy Lee Jones's deputy in No Country For Old Men) arrives at her door one day, Ree learns that her no account father, Jessup Dolly, has been busted for cooking meth and put up the house and land as bond to get out of jail. If Jessup doesn't show for his court date, the sheriff explains, then Ree and her family will lose the house, rendering them homeless and possibly scattering the family.
"I'll find him," Ree states grimly and resolutely, and the journey begins. With purpose, Ree searches through the back country for her dad, marching up hills and stepping over barbed wire and encountering some malevolent and truly dangerous folk who may be tied to her father's drug-cooking ways, some of whom are her own blood relatives. There's Teardrop, her uncle (John Hawkes), who tries to discourage Ree from asking the wrong people the wrong questions about her dad. When his wife tries to plea Ree's case, Teardrop wearily replies, "I already told you once...with my mouth" hinting at the violence that he is capable of inflicting. Ree's journey takes her to small homes and bars, farms and cattle auctions all while staying true to her character. She has two siblings to care for, and the tenderest moments of the film come when she is teaching them how to cook, shoot a rifle, skin a squirrel. "Watch me make this stew," Ree tells her siblings, "so you can make it yourselves."
Without giving more away, let me just say this: Jennifer Lawrence's performance is flat-out phenomenal. Not in a histrionic, big way, but in tiny, compelling ways. The way she talks to her siblings, the way she walks with her mom. With such a strong central performance, it is easy to overlook the supporting cast, but nearly everyone in this film looks and feels authentic. John Hawkes as Teardrop is revelatory and complex. There's music in the background of many scenes, with local people playing the instruments and singing the songs.
What emerges, as some reviewers have pointed out, is a kind of backwoods Omerta, a code of silence among the inhabitants of this small corner of Missouri. When the Sheriff arrives to speak to Ree in the beginning, Granik focuses her camera on the neighbors, watching and studying the exchange in the background. The message implicit is the us vs. them mentality. Ree won't walk into her best friend's house without her husband's permission, and she refuses to beg for food from her neighbor, teaching her brother, "You never ask for what ought to be given." The threat of violence is present in nearly every scene, creating a palpable sense of dread. The mystery drives the story: Where is Ree's father?
Another way of engaging the film is to see it as a story of women. "Ain't you got no men that can do this?" asks one woman who Ree asks for help. She has none. Women both inflict violence upon Ree and bring her sustenance; she goes to the women of her community who provide her with the clues or hints as to where to find her dad or serve as the buffer between her and their men.
This film is simply excellent. I have seen it twice in less than a week, and it is the leading contender for the Best Picture I've seen this year. It evokes a place unseen in a way that is unlike most movies. It reminds me of family and communities examined closely in, say, Sling Blade or Ulee's Gold. The director infuses this story with humanity and dignity; never do the characters become stereotypes or objects of derision. Even a tricky scene with Ree meeting with an Army recruiter ends up being one of the most unexpected and powerful of the film. Upon informing Ree that at seventeen, she will need her parents' permission to join as well as learning that Ree takes care of her two younger siblings, the recruiter kindly tells her "It sounds like it would be more challenging for you to stay at home and take care of yours," acknowledging in a quiet way that Ree's soldiering through the day supporting her family is as difficult and complex as fighting in a foreign land for the army. The notion that Ree is not seen as an adult by the government is nonsensical; she's established herself as fully capable as she wanders the mountains of her community, desperately trying to save her family's home from being destroyed.
A powerful film.