Imagine a frigid day in the fall of the American Ozarks, too cold to be comfortable but not cold enough to snow. There are light grey clouds looming ominously overhead. It is utterly quiet all around, with no sound but the wind and the occasional chirp of a bird. The world around you is desolate and moody, brooding with some inner hostility but unable to strike out. Such is the world of Winter’s Bone, a sombre folk tale about 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a dirt poor girl who lives in poverty with her two younger siblings and her mentally absent mother. Here is a film that defies all modern conventions and instead reverts to an older, more difficult form of story telling. Perhaps this is a morality tale. Perhaps it’s a stark dramatization of the poorest part of America today. Perhaps it’s neither of these. This movie will mean many things to many different people, and maybe everyone’s perception of it will be wrong. All I can do here in this review is to share with all of you my perspective of this gritty, noir-like ballad of the hills.
This is perhaps the grimmest, darkest, and most sombre tale of the passed few years. It is deeply stirring and thought-provoking, dishing out for its audience an immensely sad slice of life. Probably the main theme of this film is hopelessness and how we deal with it. Its characters are hopeless and hopelessly lost in this surreal world of poverty, drugs, and brutality. The audience is hopeless that its characters could possibly live happily ever after. Even the dark, almost colourless cinematography carries an air of hopelessness with it. It is a truly bleak and grizzly fable that plays before our eyes like nothing we’ve ever seen. I have seen many a motion picture, but none I’ve seen is at all like this one. It is a truly original movie, even thought it was based on a book. Neither the story, nor the characters, nor the oddly unsettling vibes radiating from the screen have ever really been presented before. Because it is like nothing I’ve ever seen, I had no idea in which direction the film would go next. I kept expecting specific things to happen, but they never did. And certain things that did happen caught me completely off guard. Finally I realized that this film wasn’t built on plot points. It was built on a whole. The picture can’t be examined scene by scene like most can because the scenes flow together seamlessly like real life. There is no telling where one event begins and the next ends. This could be the most relentlessly realistic film I’ve seen in a while. Instead of following a formula like even the greatest movies do, Winter’s Bone takes its own path in telling the audience what it needs to know, and it takes its time getting there.
The premise is basically this: Jessup Dolly is a meth cooker who signs off his entire property as a bond for his bail after he is arrested. Once he is released on bail, he runs and pretty soon the law comes knocking on the Dolly family’s door telling them that they will loose their house unless Jessup can be found. Jessup’s daughter, Ree, looks around at her brother and sister and her emotionally distant mother and wonders what to do without a house. Then, without batting an eye, she firmly tells the county sheriff that she will find him herself. So begins her journey into a dangerous world inhabited mostly by other meth cooking relatives who are often both scary and sympathetic at the same moment. No one wants to help Ree maybe because they’re just mean and hostile hillbillies, or maybe because they are afraid of what they may discover if they do help her. The thing I love most about the story is that there are no heroes and no villains. There are just people. People who for some reason known but to God, have been sentenced to live out their life in total ignorance and despair. Every character has numerous flaws, and every character has some qualities. Our “heroine”, Ree, is hardly perfect. She is often mean and cruel and terribly cold when it comes to her emotions. She is often unlikable, but for some reason we identify with her. The rest of the people in this desolate backwoods universe are equally as cruel and determined as she. The one and only relative who is willing to even remotely help Ree is her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). Although he can be just as evil and scary as the rest of the family, there is a streak of nobility in him that stops him from alienating Ree the way the rest of these dark souls do. So together, Ree and Teardrop do their best to find Jessup, but what waits down the road may be even more horrific and painful than being thrown off their property.
The film is a subtle, quiet, and utterly satisfying film with numerous unidentifiable themes. Perhaps the highlight of the production is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as the aforementioned Ree. In a role where most actresses would have gone wrong (either by over acting or becoming too emotional in their performance), Lawrence plays this poor girl to perfection. I can’t really find a flaw here. She is not over-emotional in any way, nor is she too detached so as to become aloof to the audience. She travels through this bleak and dark film in a way that many other actresses would envy. In short, perfection. I would be surprised if there isn’t an Oscar nomination for her. Of course the film is also beautifully shot. The cinematography by Michael McDonough is absolutely breath taking. It is dark and grey, and often times we can’t hardly see anything. Some of the shots are so bleak and grim, evoking strong emotional responses form the audience. Every frame is so meaningful, and the spare use of colours only defines the meaning even more. The visual style is poignant and beautiful, giving the film a mood like no other.
I have to say, I loved this movie. The film is so well-executed in every way. Its performances are subtle and moving, the story though grim and violent at times is utterly thought provoking. This is one of those rare gems of a movie that comes along every now and then to really wow an audience. If you are a smart person, do yourself a favour and go see this. You will not be sorry. Winter’s Bone is a stunning, beautiful, and grizzly depiction of the dark side of America. It is perhaps the darkest movie out this year. Nonetheless, it is truly a great movie in every sense. Nothing is wrong with it. If I could name a flaw, don’t you think I would? Fabulous.
Anonymous Content and Winter’s Bone Productions Presents a film by Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garrett Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Ashlee Thompson, Isaiah Stone. Directed by Debra Granik
Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content. Release Date: 11 June 2010