Sundance smash hit Winter’s Bone has been rightly touted as this year’s Frozen River; an indie darling that intimately examines a disparate environ cut off from society, as those irrevocably confined to its spaces attempt to wriggle free for the hope of something better awaiting them.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl residing in America’s far and away Ozark mountains, caring for her young brother and sisters after their mother falls ill. However, after her father – a crystal meth cook – misses a court date, she must track him down through the mountains, otherwise she will lose the family home, for the father put it up as his court bond. However, the surrounding residents – many of them meth cooks and dealers themselves – are none too keen on Ree’s snooping around, and want to put a stop to her quest.
There is a profound sense of Neorealism percolating beneath Winter’s Bone’s noirish mystery plot, for in early moments we observe Ree taking her siblings to school and teaching them to count on the way amid the miasma of their meth-addled, hope-spare surroundings. How aptly this plight has been captured – of one family’s abject poverty in already miserable conditions – is staggering. Ree is basically a surrogate mother, and takes onto herself some form of courageous-domestic-Goddess once things heat up. Ree may be young, but she is smart and resourceful, and that is ultimately what just might see her through: she has considerable knowledge of both the law and the streets for someone who might otherwise be easily dismissed as a bumpkin. Her only flaw, if any, is her pride, in not wanting to ask for handouts from the neighbours, at least one of whom happily lends her a wood splitter and shares her provisions.
Socially, the film’s most resonant interaction is with regard to gender; the brief appearance of Ree’s sister – a character unmistakably domineered by her husband – only serves to foreground how desperately Ree refuses to be resigned to the same fate, even as the ramifications of her fleeing father hang over her like a spectral manifestation of both “the man” and “the law”. The fact that Ree wants to enlist in the Army instantly brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from the Alien films, yet unlike Weaver, Lawrence is far from masculinised in her female constitution; she is still an attractive young girl, and throughout, carefully mixes a strong spirit and a tender, maternal assertiveness.
Only once John Hawkes appears as Ree’s ambiguous toughie uncle Teardrop, however, does that eerie sense of the meth-belt’s danger creep convincingly to the surface. As a bridging vessel between Ree’s salt-of-the-Earth honesty and the outright moral bankruptcy of the surrounding areas – not to mention the inherent corruption of the police force – Hawkes plays the moral duality of the role perfectly. Teardrop’s desperate desire to learn the circumstances of his brother’s disappearance jostles with his similar desire not to become victim to a similar fate should he follow the rabbit hole further.
The mystery plot itself is essentially standard breadcrumb-following detective fodder under an indie guise. Ree’s trek through the mountains, where she stops and speaks to her dad’s various acquaintances, is structurally repetitive, but the strikingly photographed imagery and immaculate performances keep things interesting. Each repetition also serves a purpose, in cementing our inkling that the residents aren’t telling Ree something, hinting at a possible twist to come. Intrigue slowly gathers, as people try to cover up Ree’s father’s disappearance in various ways, and the mountain’s denizens become increasingly defensive. By mid-way, things are agonisingly hopeless; no help is given by Ree’s catatonic mother (in a devastating scene), and Lawrence completely conveys the despair with a nuanced interpretation of someone given the grim task of either hunting down their father, who presumably doesn’t want to be found, or finding his corpse.
Though the slight nature of the narrative is a matter of give-or-take, there are only two especially grating flaws in the film. Thanks probably due to both the Southern accents and the low-budget production, several characters do seem to mumble their way through their lines, causing some moments to seem barely comprehensible and, as a result, quite underwhelming, to the point that the big reveal itself might require a double-take just to be sure. A mid-film dream sequence also borders on pretension, cutting to a 4:3 ratio, utilising black and white photography, and depicting a forest being chopped down as various birds flee. Is it beautifully dream-like or, more likely, a forced, clunky metaphor for Ree’s home being threatened? It is the film’s worst and most lazy moment by miles.
Though it is chiefly Lawrence who has been receiving the Oscar hype thus far (she is a shoo-in for a nomination), this is an exceptionally well-played film by all, even with regard to the minute bit parts. Still alluring all these years later despite rarely showing up in anything is Twin Peaks starlet Sheryl Lee who, as a former lover of Ree’s father, pours her heart into a brief emotional scene, which adds further to the soul-crushing anxiety. More enticing still is an excellent scene between Ree and an army recruiter, as he explains to her the fallacy of attempting to join the army while trying to raise two children.
The tenable sense of dread and tension built by the climax will keep you on your toes; a tense in-car standoff is especially notable, though the resolution of the central mystery is itself rather understated, solved through a tiny sliver of exposition, which is bookended with a particularly grim sequence that likens the picture more favourably to the Coen Brothers’ superior Fargo, providing Lawrence with her best moment at the same time.
Though unsettling in the extreme, there is room for both hope and humour (no matter how dark) in Winter’s Bone. The film will be best remembered for both Lawrence’s gripping – if perhaps over-praised – performance, as well as for Debra Granik’s well-photographed glimpse into a mostly unseen place. Thematically, it has a particularly unique, philosophical regard to notions of violence and revenge; after all, for Ree, retribution will only doom her further, and that might be the saddest part of it all. There is plenty left unjust by the time the credits roll, but there is something more important, also; a little glimmer of hope.
Winter’s Bone is on limited U.K. release from today.