4 stars (R)
Winter's Bone, winner of the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is a drama about a 17-year-old on a mission to find her father, or his body, before the bail bondsman takes the family home away. Shot on location in the Ozarks of Southwestern Missouri, the story is set in a world of great poverty, yet filmmaker Debra Granik refuses to play tourist and gawk at what goes on. Her point of view is matter-of-fact, much like the actions of the teenager trying to save her family. Very dramatic, disturbing things happen, but the context feels so genuine that the impact is different than in most thrillers. Good different.
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Granik and Anne Rosellini's screenplay introduces us to Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who tends to her two younger siblings. Her mother shares space with them, but doesn't participate in anything, including conversations. She swallows her medication and sits in the house, present but absent. Dad is physically gone. He put the house up for bail without telling the family, then disappeared. If he misses his upcoming court date, the family loses their home.
Ree sets out to find her father the same way she does everything: directly and without posturing. Her journey starts slow and gets tedious at times, but every step reveals another detail - not necessarily about her father, but about the culture in which she lives. Along the way, we meet a variety of distinct individuals and hear some amazing statements ("I already said shut up once with my mouth") presented in the most off-handed fashion.
The movie could have easily fallen into the Bleak Chic category, but damned if it doesn't all feel so genuine. No sentimentality, no wallowing in misery, the events just happen. Granted, the tale is augmented by Dickon Hinchliffe's score, but I never thought about the music while watching the film, so the verisimilitude is maintained. There are horrific moments, but Granik opts to keep most of the grisly images off camera. The most disturbing image actually shown comes when Ree teaches her younger brother how to gut a squirrel, and even that is presented without getting needlessly gross.
I was fascinated by the atmosphere of the film. The poverty is ever-present, but the focus is on the community, scattered through the mountains, but insular nonetheless. We rarely see the inside of houses. Instead we learn through the people we meet. Watch as Ree teaches her brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) how to use a rifle, or deal with need ("Never ask for something that should be offered," she instructs Sonny). Savor the credibility of the characters - no one, not even the most imposing individuals, feels written.
The cast is memorable, particularly John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree's threatening uncle. You've met this guy before, and gotten away from him as soon as possible. Check out April - yes, that's Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Most impressive is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. She's scary good, giving her character such determination and resilience that she makes you realize that hope is born by making the frightening decision to keep going on.