Joyce Glasser reviews Winter’s Bone (September 17, 2010) Cert. 15, 98 min.
Director Debra Granik’s Sundance Festival winner set in Missouri’s Ozark woods, has been compared favourably with last year’s tale of a strong heroine put through the ringer to save her home, Frozen River. But Winter’s Bone plays more like a parody of that excellent film than an homage or rival in the genre.
When most 17-year-olds are gossiping on their iPhones, but in the Ozarks of Missouri Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is skinning squirrels, teaching her dependent young siblings to shoot, feeding her catatonic mother and searching for her alcoholic father who borrowed against their ramshackle home. The family are already destitute but if the bank forecloses on the house, they will no longer have a leaky roof over their heads.
Where does the girl start? Pop’s in the family business – selling illegal meth – but Ree’s relatives would sooner beat her up or feed her cocaine than help her find Pop. The women of her distant relative – the local crime boss – beat up Ree and the men threaten her unless she drops her search. Even for Southern Gothic, it’s all a bit much – and that’s before she goes searching for body parts in a filthy swamp.
Fortunately there is uncle Teardrop, a meth-addicted music lover who is an unlikely hero and ally of this poor young woman. They share a fondness for an old guitar which singles them out as creative people who could rise above their blood kin. Teardrop, played by the fine actor John Hawkes (The Sessions, Martha Marcy May Marlene, plays Teardrop with the requisite nuance, ensuring that there is no sentimentality in his performance and only the slightest hint of heroism in his character.
While some audiences might be moved by the strength of character of this young heroine, others might be left wondering why she had to undergo such a quest to begin with. There is no logical reason why the extended family should be so secretive about dad’s whereabouts. Of course, without this secrecy, there would be no story, and so the thinnest possible plot hangs on an uneasy premise.
Granik’s film is beautifully shot by Michael McDonough with a nice, cold, grey-brown mist that puts everyone on edge and makes full use of well- researched, sets and costumes, but it’s a bit too convincing, right down to the properly worn furniture and old banjos lying around. While Granik (a city girl from Cambridge Massachusetts, the home of Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts and Brandeis to name a few) deserves credit for delving into this little seen aspect of rural America, you can’t help feeling that the camera lingers too long on that worn furniture in case it is not immediately apparent.
In the context of the simplistic trajectory of the story, Lawrence’s character adopts a single rigid, determined expression, that is best described as half-pain, half-defiance, and holds that look throughout the film. Lawrence, who was outstanding in The Burning Plain, where she played a far more complex and layered character, is nonetheless the reason to see this atmospheric, melodrama that borders on misery porn.
You can watch the film trailer here: