Winter’s Bone (2010) – Jennifer Lawrence Shines in Bleak and Gripping Tale…

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Too many American filmmakers these days portray the Poor as a cavalcade of “Redneck” or “Hillbilly” stereotypes.  There is a tendency to  sentimentalise them, while at the same time sniffing through the dirty laundry of their poverty; or present them as a kind of burlesque freakshow of bad hair, bad teeth and bad manners.  Even directors with a genuine sensibility can fall into the trap of showing rural folk as a bunch of ignorant pig-fuckers, or worse, endow them with some mawkish sense of magic-realist nobility, as in Benh Zeitlin’s patronising Beasts of the Southern Wild.

In Winter’s Bone, featuring Jennifer Lawrence‘s breakthrough role as an Ozark girl determined to look after her family, director Debra Granik masterfully manages to avoid these pitfalls.  She observes her characters with empathy, and without comment.  The people of Winter’s Bone are isolated, almost detached from society in a bleak, impoverished landscape, but their hardship is presented as a statement of fact, rather than a mere plot contrivance.  If it was a more political work, you could read it as an elegy for the American Dream.

These people are poor, but they’re surviving, and Winter’s Bone has a clear eye on the banality of evil – people are not always driven to evil acts because they’re crazy, cruel, depraved or psychotic.  Sometimes they’re driven to those acts just in order to keep living, and lesser directors might have been tempted to take the routine thriller route with Winter’s Bone, and turn it into something more like A Simple Plan.

Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a teenager living on an isolated homestead somewhere in the hills.  Her mother is mentally estranged and her father absent, leaving her to bring up her little brother and sister.  There is no money and little comfort, and she soon learns that her crook father has put the family home up as his bail bond, and that they will lose the house if he misses his court date.  Ree decides she is going to track down her father.

However, people are reluctant to tell Ree where he is.  Her neighbours are hostile when approached, and it is clear that her father was in with a bad crowd.  People aren’t talking, including her uncle Teardop (John Hawkes), who seems more reluctant than most to go poking around after his brother.

Ree is not afraid of these people, although the implied threat of violence hangs in the air during almost every encounter in Winter’s Bone.  Almost every violent act has already happened, or happens off-screen, but there is a real sense of danger here – you really get the sense that if these people wanted to dispose of this snooping teenage girl, she wouldn’t be found again.

Winter’s Bone is a grim and captivating film.  It feels honest.  Whereas even Cormac McCarthy tends to spin off into lyricism in his books when it comes to depicting simple folk, Granik’s vision is unsentimental and unflinching – certain scenes have an almost cinema verite feel to them.

Jennifer Lawrence is magnificent as Ree.  She is not looking for any sympathy or any charity.  She just wants to look after her brother and sister, ready to walk to the end of the earth if it means finding her father and keeping the house.  She is tender and tough, and old beyond her years, but never bitter.  The film ends in a hopeful note, because you feel Ree is resourceful and bright enough to use the outcome to the best of its advantage.

Lawrence plays her with dignity and understated grace.  Grace and dignity are something she brings to all her characters, which makes her so exciting to watch.  When Jennifer Lawrence is on the screen, you believe her and you want her to win.  In that respect, she reminds me of James Stewart – no matter which direction his character took him in, you always instinctively sided with his innate goodness, and rooted for him.

Winter’s Bone isn’t perfect.  Dickon Hinchcliffe’s score over eggs the sinister aspect too much – at times it sounds as though it would be better suited to a serial killer thriller.  And Granik’s restrained approach makes two things – a dream sequence and a chainsaw moment – seem out of place.

The dream sequence, involving trees and squirrels, is perhaps the most low-key dream sequence I’ve ever seen, but against the almost kitchen sink realism of Ree’s life, it leaps off the screen as a stylistic flourish.

Chekhov‘s famous pronouncement that if you introduce a gun in a story, it absolutely must go off.  Lots of dangerous-looking things are on the screen in Winter’s Bone – rifles, axes, log splitters, chainsaws, etc.  The ominous tone and our own awareness of standard thriller tropes make us eye each one of them suspiciously, as if the board is being set for a game of Hillbilly Cluedo – was it Cleavon in the Chicken Coop with the Monkey Wrench?

So when one finally does go off, although in a way completely logical to the film’s plot, it seems uncharacteristically ghoulish compared to the rest of the movie.

These are small criticisms.  Winter’s Bone is a stark and gripping film, anchored by a gravely beautiful performance from Jennifer Lawrence.

 

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 14/12/2013, in Drama, Movies, Reviews, Thriller, W and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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