Director: Debra Granik
There is a certain beauty to the bleakest of environments that can make them endearing. Throughout Winter’s Bone, Missouri’s Ozark Mountains are painted in stark pale blues and chocolate browns to create at once both a beguiling backdrop and a sense of foreboding, a setting amongst which one is equally likely to find the rusted carcasses of pick-up trucks and the bare bones of woodland beasts. It is against this backdrop that a sordid tale of abandonment and secrets is told, and our guide is a riveting and talented young actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence. Remember the name, because it’ll be well known soon enough.
Lawrence is a revelation as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old who has had to become a mother to her younger brother and sister as her mother’s mind has been scrambled by drug abuse, leaving her effectively mute. Her meth-cooking father has disappeared, missing a court hearing in the process. His bail bond included the family shack, and Ree has one week to find her father before the bailiffs move in. Director Debra Granik (who, with Anne Rosellini, adapted Daniel Woodrell’s novel for the screen) charts Ree’s quest through a physical landscape that has borne the brunt of many cruel winters, and a human landscape wracked by drug abuse and the lack of economic opportunity; Ree hopes to enlist in the army, and probably would have done so if not for her mother’s affliction. The bleakness of the hills is offset by a keen survivalist spirit in the locals; these people are determined to survive. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (‘Deadwood’s John Hawkes) takes coke like candy, but has little fear and possesses a strong sense of moral duty. However, Ree’s survival instincts are strongest of all; her determination sees her through, even when confronted with violence and intimidation. Despite this strength, Lawrence never forgets that Ree is still 17, and hints at the childlike aspects of Ree throughout. It’s a magnificent performance, and the awards buzz around her is already gaining momentum. A cast of beautifully ragged faces (Garret Dillahunt, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey) add dark and substantial undertones.
Granik offers a refreshing slice of Americana, a realistic look at the stigma of poverty in the United States, with the only means of escape being leaving for good, drugs or death. Unremittingly bleak yet still with a sense of hope, Winter’s Bone is a beautiful film with a beautiful performance underpinning it all. Rarely has America seemed so bleak and so honest simultaneously.