Thursday, January 27, 2011
Directed by: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt
Winter's Bone tells a powerful story of Ree Dolly, a 17 year old girl who lives in the dangerous and hopelessly grim backwoods of Missouri. She is solely responsible for her much younger brother and sister and for taking care of her severely mentally ill mother. The local sheriff, solemnly played by the ever-wonderful Garret Dillahunt, informs her that her absent meth-cooking father has ditched bail and that his collateral was their small farm. If she doesn't find him they will be forced out of their home. What follows is Ree's trek around every grimy, drug infested hole in the county looking for any information she can get on her father.
Her frustration and desperation is palpable as she finds that her father was in so deep with the local drug-making "elite" that nobody will give her any information. She hits dead end after dead end and because everybody is generally unpleasant it is very difficult to tell friend from foe. As it starts to become likely that her father has in fact been murdered and his body "disposed of", Ree's situation looks utterly hopeless and the audiences cringes at this world that has sucked us into accepting a brutal murder of a father as "inconvenient". That is the shock of this story. Life is cheap, life is a chore we must get though until it is over and death is earned.
Winter's Bone is essentially a film noir set in the polar opposite of sultry LA. The structure of the story is almost like a video game where the protagonist goes from level to level unlocking prizes to get them to the next level. Here's the "prizes" are frustratingly small tidbits of information from unreliable sources. As onlookers on her journey, the audience can feel as angry and disgusted as she does. The risible junkies and dealers that she crosses paths with have learned to look out for number one and the harsh, no-nonsense lives they lead have created a world in which "love thy neighbour" is laughably idealistic.
Her one ally (or is he?) is her father's brother Teardrop (deservedly Oscar-nominated John Hawkes)who is a hopeless junkie on his last legs who is reluctant to get involved in anything, but has a soft spot for his niece and her plight. Teardrop is really a wonderful character. He's scary, unpredictable, nasty but in this world, he is Ree's only hope.
As the story rolls towards its conclusion, Ree is faced with performing a most unimaginably grisly task to ensure the safety of her farm. This sequence is horrific to watch, truly heart-wrenching and it cements this characters status as the most badass teen ever committed to film. As good a performance as Ms. Lawrence turned in I found her looks to be distracting. Her angelic face and cherubic lips were far too typical Hollywood for my liking and that might seem like an unfair thing to say given the strength of her acting. But I do have to say that if I were casting the film I would have gone for someone a little more Sissy Spacek, a little less Charlize Theron. Otherwise, the rest of the cast is suitably decrepit and miserable-looking with a unified sense of malaise that it truly disturbing after a while.
This is a wonderful story, well told and the cast is wonderful. The backwoods meth aesthetic is an interesting one and I think it might be a new favourite sub-genre of mine (it's the reason I keep watching Showtime's Justified). However, while watching the film, I couldn't help feeling that it wasn't quite living up to its potential. It had all the elements of an incredible film but it just wasn't quite hitting the right notes for me. There was unfortunately something slightly TV-ish about the tone of the film and I kept thinking that in the hands of the right director (where are you Clint???) this would have been an instant classic. That's not to say this wasn't a remarkable film. It is certainly worth watching and deserving of it's accolades. Be warned, this is grim...I mean early Mike Leigh grim!