July 18, 2010
Winter's Bone (2010) ****
Directed by Debra Granik
Winter's Bone (2010)- Sense of place and the people living within is gold. The overly sensational plot doesn't quite match up. **** out of 5
Winter's Bone portrays a poor, Southern culture with a sense of deep respect, never once explicitly asking for sweeping pity from its audience, though one can't help but feel pity for the ordeal of the main character. These emotions, based on a sense of superiority, emanate from the plot rather than the poverty or the lack of sophistication of those within.
As a sociological study of a domestic culture which admittedly feels quite foreign, Winter's Bone is a singular achievement. Everyone speaks matter-of-factly, which makes sense considering this is a black and white world with unspoken codes and ethics. Jennifer Lawrence gives an amazing Oscar-caliber performance as Ree Dolly, whose inexperience with life helpes her instinctively understand when one shouldn't live by these codes. Ree is in a crisis situation with a severely handicapped mother who has retreated completely inside herself to the point where she doesn't speak at all. At 17 years old, Ree is left in charge of her younger brother and sister, both too young to fend for themselves, and she's been told that her father, who is not in their lives, has put their house up to post bail. He's now missing, and if he's not accounted for, Ree, her mom and her siblings will lose the little security they have.
Ree thus embarks on a dangerous journey to depraved corners of her own family, which forces her to lose whatever naivety and innocence she still has. In her mind, though, she has no choice since she claims that her siblings and she would be in her own words, "thrown into the field like dogs." I am slightly disappointed by the fact that nobody even considers that there might be other options for Ree and her family within the system. Granted, foster care might not be the ideal, but considering what Ree has to go through, it might have been at least worth consideration. Ree is surrounded by troubled people that do fundamentally care about her, and hers is a dire reality. Yet I wonder if it's a bit of a fabrication that it needed to go as far as it does.
Again, the best moments of Winter's Bone are not elements of the mystery of the location of Ree's father. They are meditative sequences of people making music, children playing, Ree teaching her siblings how to hunt, the neighbors taking in Ree's horse and giving her painkillers after she's been beaten, all of which show a deliberate decency and resilience of a group of Americans coping with life and looking out for each other.
The very best scene has Ree meeting an Army recruiter. After convincing herself and everyone around her that she's mature enough to handle the dangers of finding her father, we are strikingly reminded of her youth when she thinks that she can take her siblings with her while in army training. She's 17 years old, and the Army recruiter is used to talking to people her age. He speaks in a matter of fact way letting her know that the Army isn't right for her at that time considering her responsibilities in life. Lawrence's performance in this scene is especially noteworthy. She could easily have brought all of her character's baggage into this meeting, but she doesn't. She plays the scene with such complete authenticity--so much so that the sequence feels like something out of a neo-realism movie like Wendy and Lucy rather than a Gothic noir which would be the way to describe the rest of Winter's Bone.
The missteps occur when the noir becomes a bit too Gothic. At one point, Ree is beaten and then wakes up to see her extended family members standing over her, positioned like an acting troupe performing the closing number of a musical. There are a few moments where adults knock on Ree's door late at night and take her on horrid missions which have the real potential to scar her for life. I'm compelled to ask why she needed to go along, especially during the disturbingly crazy climax on the lake. Why couldn't the adults do what they needed to do without Ree? Let the girl get a good night's sleep.
Winter's Bone is getting a lot of praise, and while it's not a perfect film, it's a good mystery with a stellar sense of place and mood. If anything, people should seek it out to see nineteen year old Lawrence give one of the performances of the year. Though it revels at times in its own nastiness, Winter's Bone is a master class in presenting a culture that's more compelling in its mystery than the mystery at the center of the film.