Winter’s Bone reminds me of the reasons why I love cinema. A director playing around with the forms of various genres. An ensemble of talented actors crafting interesting fully formed characters. The sense of discovery when I witness a star-making performance. It also helps that the film is awfully entertaining; gripping from the word go, with a hauntingly cathartic conclusion. Don’t be put off by the flurry of reviews declaring it both “bleak and uncompromising”. Winter’s Bone is indeed harrowing, but it is also fun. It’s fun, because it’s excellent, and after enduring the mostly-disappointing Hollywood blockbuster season, simply seeing an exquisite piece of work such as this brings a smile to my face. This … is a movie.
The genre-bending director is Debra Granik, who delivers a nifty little neo-noir set in the “bleak and uncompromising” Ozark Mountains of the Mississip’ (brought to life by DOP Michael McDonough). But Winter’s Bone – based upon Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name, and adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini – is less Frozen River and more Brick. It’s a mystery, a chase film, a gumshoe tale and so much more. The young actress who gives the star-making performance is Jennifer Lawrence (merely 17 years old at the time of filming). She gives an unflinchingly determined performance as Ree Dolly, the teenager charged with caring for her two younger siblings and mentally-ill mother following the arrest of her father. She’s the whip-smart descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. I think back to my favourite breakout performance of 2009 – Carey Mulligan as Jenny in An Education. Ree Dolly wouldn’t have a second for Jenny; she’d think her to be insufferable. Mulligan scored a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role last year. This year, I’ll be campaigning for Lawrence to win it.
Life in the Ozark is tough. Students at the local school are prepared for one of two scenarios – parenthood or military recruitment. Ree’s options aren’t even that promising. She’s had to drop out to hunt food for her brother, sister and mother; she’s desperately trying to keep them warm, keep them from starving, and keep them alive. Her already unenviable situation is made worse following a visit from Sherriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt). He says her meth-cooking daddy has placed their home as bail bond, and daddy just fled town. Baskin says Ree should prepare to move, but the only option would be to move into the wilderness. Instead, she sets out to interrogate her neighbours, find her no-good dad, and hand him over to The Law. The task will turn out to be downright impossible. But Ree is far more resolute than expected.
The trajectory of the film’s plot doesn’t stray too far from traditional crime fiction. Ree’s at-first intimidating uncle Teardrop (an equally award-worthy John Hawkes) is revealed to have her best interests at heart, while other, seemingly more-helpful acquaintances are discovered to be hiding one secret or another. However, it’s only at the film’s end do you notice the adherence to conventions. Throughout proceedings, it is consistently surprising and truly thrilling – more so than any other recent film I’ve seen recently. The stakes are sky high – for Ree, for Teardrop, even for the villains – and that is a rare treat these days. Winter’s Bone is a hard-boiled detective story, a gritty thriller, a harrowing commentary on life for the have-nots and a stirring character piece. What else can I say?
Winter’s Bone opens in limited release across Australia November 11, 2010.