Girl vs. chaotic world in taut Southern Gothic noir 'Winter's Bone'
It's always something, as Gilda Radner used to say. It certainly is in the relentless narrative of Winter's Bone, a nerve-rattling exercise in dread and redemption that knocked the bejeebers out of critics and audiences alike at this year's Sundance festival. (It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture, as well as the Best Screenplay award.) Directed with grit and assurance by Debra Granik, this Southern Gothic noir thriller is taut, scary, more than a little creepy, and strangely poignant. It's a bracing alternative to the bloated franchises, inane comedies, and action extravaganzas of the summer movie season.
Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film also features a breakout performance from the young actress Jennifer Lawrence. As a 17-year-old Ozark mountain girl struggling to keep the remnants of her family together against a rising tide of chaos, Lawrence creates a character who is poised, incredibly resilient (although never "tough" in the usual, clichéd way), and somehow, against all odds, touched by grace. Onscreen in virtually every scene, she's also warm and compelling enough to captivate our interest throughout.
Ree Dolly (Lawrence) lives down the holler in a ramshackle log cabin. It's her job to see her kid brother and little sister fed and clothed, get them off to school, and make sure they do their homework. She also runs the household and cares for the animals from a dwindling supply of cash; her mama has retreated into a benign, medicated stupor, and her meth-cooking daddy hasn't been around much lately.
Things are already precarious when the deputy comes out to tell Ree that her father has put the family home and tiny plot of land up for his bond—and disappeared. If he doesn't show up for his court date on drug charges, they'll be turned out of their home to fend for themselves. To find him and save their home, Ree must descend into the ever-narrowing and deepening circles of Hell that make up her lawless family and their various unsavory associates— beginning with her uncle, Teardrop (a stunning John Hawkes), her daddy's only brother, who warns her in no uncertain terms not to start nosing around where she doesn't belong.
The manhunt suspense plot is hairy enough—it's like a gangster movie with fiddle music and farm animals—as the stoic, determined Ree makes her way from one sinister encounter to the next. But what emerges as well is a searing portrait of life on the outer fringes of any kind of social order. Men, who a generation or two before might have been moonshiners, are now tattooed psychos who cook up drugs. Their women are mostly fearful and obedient ("It's different when you're married," sighs Ree's girlfriend, cradling her new baby, when her jerk husband won't "let" her drive their truck). Or else, they're weary, grim-faced harpy watchdogs like Merab (the excellent Dale Dickey), who tries to shoo Ree off, asking, "Don’t you have no men to do this for you?" It's a milieu where everyone seems to be related, but "blood don't mean shit," when it comes to business.
Shot on location in Missouri, the movie looks exotic, although not necessarily in a good way: its dripping trees and oozing marshlands are the stuff of horror movies or nightmares. The constant human factor is Lawrence's plucky Ree, who has just enough sass to temper her wary innocence, and the moral courage to see her mission through to the end.
Granik, meanwhile, keeps a firm grip on the film's edgy tone; the viewer is never allowed to relax, yet the director shows a remarkable sensitivity in handling some of the story's more grotesque or horrific elements. It wouldn't be nearly as successful with a more action-oriented storyteller at the helm. But in Granik's capable hands, Winter's Bone becomes a tough-minded morality play with plenty of twists and turns, as well as a droll, but highly credible, reassertion of family values where the viewer least expects it.
WINTER'S BONE ★★★1/2 (out of four)
With Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini. From the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Directed by Debra Granik. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 100 minutes.
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