Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Debra Granik, director & co-script w/Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Ree Dolly), John Hawkes (Teardrop), Lauren Sweetser (Gail), Garret Dillahunt (Sheriff Baskin), Dale Dickey (Merab), Shelley Waggener (Sonya), Sheryl Lee (April)
It’s so rare to see the real thing in cinema–or, indeed, in any work of art–that a film like Winter’s Bone strikes you with the force of a lover’s slap or the beauty of a sudden kiss. Shocking but romantic distillations of hard-bitten reality was the modernist go-to aesthetic for American artists ranging from Hemingway to Hopper to Ives: it created a paradigm, which many contemporary creators still aspire to reach. Few succeed, but one who does is Daniel Woodrell, a real-life Ozark Mountain boy who has become the greatest modern writer of “country noir,” dark-hued tales of poverty, pride and passion in an America that time has forgot.
Now Debra Granik, a strong-willed independent American filmmaker, has crafted an exceptional adaptation of one of Woodrell’s finest novels, Winter’s Bone. Shot in the mountains in the rural South, with its in-bred population, rocky terrain and decaying one-floor houses rendered likeable by verandahs for socializing, Winter’s Bone has the spare beauty of Walker Evans’ and Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs. The men here are outlaws and the women quietly keep a semblance of control through the Church, food and family.
One such young Mountain woman is Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old, who is desperately trying to keep her family together. Ree’s mother has lost her mind trying to cope with Jessup, her criminal husband, who has been busted for running a crystal meth factory. (It’s the modern equivalent of being a moonshiner.) Now, Ree is being forced to cope with her six year-old sister, 12 year-old brother–and her increasingly dysfunctional mother.
Worse, Jessup has flown the coop, leaving the family home as collateral to his bail bondsman. In order to keep her family together, Ree will have to find her dad or forfeit the house.
Granik follows Ree, a stubborn, traditional country girl, as she takes on the role of detective, in search of her Dad. She’s met with threats and contempt–at one point, someone asks, “don’t you have a man who can do this?”—as she quietly confronts her uncle Teardrop, the sheriff, the bail bondsman and, most terrifyingly, “kin” who live up on top of the hill and surely know what has happened to Jessup.
Fairly soon, it becomes apparent that Jessup is dead. Ree has to cope with that knowledge, which means that she has to produce his body in order to keep the bail bondsman from her door and save the house. With Teardrop refusing to help, Ree goes back to take on her “kin,” only to be beaten up badly by Gail, the hard-as-nails wife of her powerful outlaw cousin. It’s only at that critical juncture that Teardrop finally shows up to defend his niece, but not his brother.
Winter’s Bone has the power of myth. Ree’s quest goes beyond that of a private detective: she has the pride and single-minded purpose needed to force Gail and her harpies to reveal the truth about Jessup. One watches in awe as this 17 year-old, motivated by a pure love for her family, fights everyone to arrive at a conclusion that can save them and their house.
Debra Granik’s film garnered Sundance 2010’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Drama at the festival. Jennifer Lawrence, an exceptional actress who played Charlize Theron’s teenaged self in The Burning Plain, is brilliant as Ree. She embraces the tough, deglamorized character and makes it work for her. Also extraordinary is John Hawkes, channeling the young Harry Dean Stanton, as a mountain man, who is so moved by Ree’s sacrifice that he decides to force the issue and find out what has happened to his brother. In the small but critical role of Gail, Lauren Sweetser is a powerful presence.
Many critics have decried Sundance winners as being too quirky or low budget for a mainstream audience. Winter’s Bone will hardly be a big box-office success but not for those reasons. A tough film like this is never going to appeal to a massive crowd. But Winter’s Bone is one of the finest American movies of recent times. I urge you to see it.