Blood’s thicker than water...provided you don’t ask the wrong questions.
Image: Artificial Eye
Winter’s Bone arrives in UK cinemas propelled by almost universal critical acclaim and laden with festival awards. It’s a good thing too, as there’s little else to grab the mainstream audiences’ attention. Its subject matter is grim, there’s no trailer friendly plot hook, and the closest thing it has to stars are character actors Garret Dillahunt and John Hawkes. Winter’s Bone needs all the positive word of mouth it can get. Given the quality of the film, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Ree Dolly is a 17 year old girl living in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri looking after her two younger siblings and invalid mother. Her Dad has skipped bail, leaving her with one week to find him before she loses the family home. But the local criminal community are suspicious, and nobody’s talking. With time running out, she takes greater and greater risks to find the truth about her father’s whereabouts.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker Winter’s Bone might have fallen into the trap of mocking or wallowing in the hardships of life in rural Missouri. However, thanks to excellent casting and director Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone feels fiercely authentic, and is all the more powerful because of it. There’s no “Sure got a purty mouth” here. Violence is hinted at but never shown, and the bonds of family are all-important. Equally, however, the reality isn’t glossed over. Life is hard, and people do what they have to.
Granik, whose only prior film was Down to the Bone, keeps the perspective of Ree for the whole film, and uses an understated hand-held shooting style, which keeps the viewer invested in her journey. As Ree ploughs forward the sense of impending doom becomes almost unbearable. But that’s what makes Winter’s Bone great. The 17-year old heroine knows the danger she’s in, but she’s not going to stop until she finds out what she needs to know.
While Jennifer Lawrence is frankly a little too polished and pristine to completely look the part, her performance as Ree Dolly is flawless. The young actress is equally comfortable playing the tender scenes with her family as she is with the confrontations with the local drug dealers. The strong supporting cast includes Dillahunt (No Country For Old Men, The Road) and Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks), though the standout is Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop. Best known for his turns as loveable losers in films like Me and You and Everyone We Know, Hawkes clearly relishes the chance to play such an unstable character, who seems to be perpetually on the verge of brutal violence but also possesses a strange melancholy.
With its sombre tone and grim subject matter, Winter’s Bone may not be for everyone. However, for those willing to give it a chance, it’s a gripping, involving and rewarding film. An excellent antidote to a largely disappointing summer at the cinema.