Monday, December 20, 2010

Feeling the Chill of WINTER'S BONE - A Retroactive Review of One Of The Year's Most Buzzed-About Films


- Sometimes, you can't help but root for a movie simply because it feels so fresh and different. Winter's Bone is one of those scrappy little films that feels like a beacon of originality amidst so much big-studio clutter. It features one of the year's true breakthrough performances - from its young star Jennifer Lawrence. What's more, Winter's Bone - based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell - is truly dark, uncompromising, and really, pretty %&$&'ed up. In that respect, it feels like a singular creative vision, not something created by committee. And it creates an unmistakable sense of place, taking its audience to the cold, grey desolation of the Ozarks, transporting us to a world of poverty, desperation, and darkness. If that sounds grim, well, it is. But somehow, director Debra Granik turns this place into a fascinating neo-noir landscape filled with secrets and shady characters. And in Ree, our doggedly determined, wise-beyond-her-years protagonist, she's imbued her story with a new sort of world-weary hero - a teenage girl who is fighting for her family, who's searching for answers in a place that keeps its mysteries closely-guarded.

I'll admit - Winter's Bone completely passed me by when it first hit theaters this past Spring. I had heard little buzz about the movie since, but recently have seen the title cropping up over and over again on a number of year-end Best-Of lists, racking up kudos and awards nominations. So, I decided to digitally rent the movie via iTunes and see what I thought. And I definitely thought highly enough of it that I wanted to post a full review. I have to say - there's definitely that added thrill present when seeing a movie knowing almost nothing about it. So much of our reaction to popular culture comes from weighing something against its own hype. It was pretty refreshing to go in as a mostly-blank slate and see where the movie took me.

And it took me to a very strange place indeed. I've never been to the Ozarks, and I don't know that I've ever actually met someone from that part of the country, so I don't have much of a reference point with regards to how accurate Winter's Bone is in its portrayal of the region or its people. But for the purposes of the film - in terms of how effectively the location is established and the local color given life - Granik does a pretty amazing job. She paints this picture of a once-beautiful place that's been ravaged by poverty and hopelessness. Drug use is rampant, and everyone seems to be a meth-head, a drunk, or just plain mentally unstable. The way of life is solitary yet oddly codependent and tribal. Everyone seems to be related to everyone, and the people are fiercely protective, fearful of "the law" and of the general influence of the outside world. Modern technology and conveniences exist, but they are scarce. People still live off the land, in a harsh and unforgiving climate. They build their own houses, tend to their own food and livestock. They trudge through the snow and ice to get where they're going, or else drive through barely-there roads in old, beat-up automobiles. They convene to laugh, swap stories, sing and drink. But they also convene to get high, to feed addictions, to carry out a brutal sort of frontier justice. Despite how expansive the wintry landscapes are, everything feels incredibly claustrophobic and gated-in. Honestly, it's hard to believe that a place like this could exist in modern America. And maybe it doesn't, maybe the world of Winter's Bone is more stylized exaggeration than reality. But again, the picture that Granik paints is so vivid that you can't help but buy into it.

It helps that Winter's Bone also features a knockout performance from Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, the duty-bound teenager with a lot of grit and a lot of will. Looking at Lawrence's resume, she's done some sitcom stuff, some comedy. But holy crap, this is some incredible work, especially given how out-of-nowhere it is. As a whole, Winter's Bone is a fairly minimalist movie, but within that bare-bones framework, Lawrence just fully inhabits the character of Ree. Ree is on a quest to find her meth-cooking father, and she has to find him soon. With her father knee deep in all sorts of unsavory stuff, and her mother suffering from mental illness, Ree has been singlehandedly raising her two younger siblings, alone, in their rickety farm house in the Ozark mountains. Their circumstances are fairly dire - they have no money, and are literally going out and hunting for their food. Their neighbors help them out a little, but mostly, Ree is completely on her own - at age seventeen, forced to grow up far too fast with few if any options for escape. Ree sees signing up with the military as one possible way out - but that would mean leaving her brother and sister to fend for themselves, or giving them up to one of her shady neighbors or relatives. Now, Ree has to find her dad because if she doesn't, their house is in danger of being repossessed. And that means finding him dead, or alive. Because there's a strong chance that Ree's missing father has gone and gotten himself killed. It wouldn't be unheard of in this wild and fairly lawless country. And so Ree sets off to find him, marching into meth-dens, antagonizing all manner of scary-ass mountain folk, getting the wrong people angry and generally stirring things up. Not bad for a seventeen year old girl. And not bad for Lawrence, who again, completely owns this part - you can really feel the pain, the determination, the worry on her face and in her expressions. It's an intense performance.

There are a couple of other really memorable performances in the movie as well. The most notable, I think, is that of John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree's burnt-out uncle who has to figure out whether to stay loyal to his meth-head friends or man-up and help out his niece, be the father figure she needs. Hawkes' haunted eyes tell the tale of a man who is a shell of his old self - used-up, drugged-out - but, there is still, perhaps, a spark of life left in there. Again, it's some pretty intense stuff, and Hawkes is badass in the role. Other than Hawkes though, Winter's Bone is populated by a real motley crue of creepy-looking mountain men and women. From the first moments of the film, you know you're not in Kansas (or Hollywood) anymore, and it definitely makes the world of the film all the more real and believable.

As mentioned, the plot of the film is fairly minimalist, and that does perhaps make the movie feel less substantial than it might have otherwise. By the time Winter's Bone is over, you feel like you've just seen this amazing, disturbing slice-of-life story, but it's hard to know what, exactly, to take away from it. Things end up a lot like they started, and Ree's fate seems very much up in the air, almost painfully so. There's a bleak sense of defeat that permeates the film - this isn't a hero's journey so much as it is simply a story of pure survival. Ree does what she has to to stay alive, and to keep her family alive, and not much more. The hints that Ree might escape to a better life turn out to be more misirection than anything else, and that realization can't help but leave you feeling a little empty by the movie's end.

Still, it's not often that a movie comes along and, out of nowhere, makes this much of an emotional and artistic impact. It's not often that a film contains so many great little moments, so many scenes that are this well-constructed, so full of character, containing this level of striking imagery. It very quickly put Debra Granik and Jennifer Lawrence on my radar. And I do think that Lawrence's performance has got to be considered right up there among the year's best. Winter's Bone is a haunting movie, surprisingly intense and brimming with atmosphere and character. Definitely give it a look.

My Grade: A-

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