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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Winter’s Bone

I’m always intrigued by the idea of world-building in film.  Whether we’re talking about fantasy worlds a long time ago and far, far away, or the depiction of distinct real-life settings or time-periods, when I watch a movie I love to be immersed in a fully-realized universe in which the story takes place.  In some movies, the setting is barely mentioned and basically irrelevant to the story.  In others, the setting becomes almost a key character in the story, and the filmmakers expend great time and skill in bringing that particular universe of the story to vibrant life.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and written by Ms. Granik and Anne Rosellini (adapting the novel by Daniel Woodrell), definitely falls into the latter category.  The story is set in the Ozarks, a rural area of Missouri.  I have no idea if the world of the Ozarks as depicted in this film bears any connection to real life (I assume that it does, but I certainly can’t verify that myself), but whether it does or not, I have found it difficult to shake the picture of this downtrodden community that Ms. Granik has created in her film.

Winter’s Bone focuses on Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year-old girl who has assumed the role of caretaker for her family (a sick mother and two younger siblings) in the absence of her father, a meth cooker who has vanished — either dead or on the run for the law.  Though she harbors a dream of joining the army and leaving her home behind, when we first meet Ree she seems to have settled impressively well into her role as head of the family.  She exhibits great responsibility and maturity in taking care of everything that needs to be done, without complaint, and she gives enormous amounts of care to her mom and siblings.  But her precariously-balanced existence is thrown into grave jeopardy when the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her missing father (Jessup) had put up their house and all their possessions as bond. If he doesn’t show up to his court date, Ree and her family will lose everything.  With her back up against the wall, Ree begins trying to locate her father by making inquiry with her neighbors — most of whom seem to be related to her in some way, and most of whom seem to be involved in the same criminal activities that her father was.  They are proudly defiant of the law and as such refuse to help Ree track down her father.  With the clock ticking, the young girl feels her options waning.

I’ve read reviews of this film that describe it as depicting the close-knit communities of the Ozarks.  In a way, that’s correct — Ree’s world is indeed very close-knit.  Everyone she deals with is connected in some way to one another — many of them by blood.  But in all the ways that count, the community depicted in Winter’s Bone is an extraordinarily disconnected one.  Silence appears to be the code of this community, rather than communication.  Each individual that we meet, as Ree’s quest becomes increasingly desperate, appears isolated from his/her family members and neighbors, and Ree finds scant sympathy or assistance with her plight.

This is a film without many pyrotechnics.  It’s a quiet, subdued story, filled with characters who speak softly if at all.  (As I wrote above, communication does not appear to be this community’s strength.)  The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, and the stark, frozen setting provides a potent externalization of the cold world these poor people inhabit.  This might sound like an incredibly downbeat film, and, indeed, parts of it are quite tough to watch.  (It’s viscerally painful to watch this young girl encounter adult after adult who is unable or unwilling to help her.)  But the story has been crafted with great energy and skill, and the narrative is compelling enough to sweep the viewer easily along.

There are some fine actors involved.  Garret Dillahunt has really grown on me over these past few years (he seems to keep popping up in really interesting films, from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to No Country For Old Men to The Road) and he gives a great performance in the small but critical role of Sheriff Baskin.  I was really fascinated by the character of Teardrop, Jessup’s brother, wonderfully brought to life by John Hawkes.  Initially the character appears as a completely despicable figure of menace, but as the film progresses we gradually discover that there’s a lot more to this grizzled man than is initially apparent.  Mr. Hwakes is astounding, able to shift on a dime between showing Teardrop’s brutal viscousness as well as the soul lying deep beneath.  (I was absolutely shocked to learn that this is the same actor who portrayed the wimpy Lennon on the final season of Lost. Two more completely different characters I could scarcely imagine.)

But Winter’s Bone belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.  She is absolutely magnificent in the lead role.  While keeping her performance very contained and internal, Ms. Lawrence is able to show us so many different layers to Ree over the course of the film.  She brings an honesty and a truthfulness to her scenes that is extraordinarily impressive.  The success of the film really hangs on her shoulders.  Does the audience believe the reality of her situation, and do we connect with her character in order to invest in her story?  The answer to both questions is a resounding yes.  This is a star-making performance, and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ms. Lawrence in the near future.

I can understand why Winter’s Bone has appeared on so many critics’ Top 10 lists for 2010.  I’m not sure if it’s going to make mine, but it’s a really competently made little film and is worth a look.

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