Directed by: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes
Running Time: 100 min.
“Out in the cold”
In the unforgiving backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks, teenager Ree Dolley takes care of her two younger siblings and catatonic mother, scraping by after her meth cooking Dad’s arrest. But when her father puts the house up for his bond and skips his court date, she sets out to find him with some reluctant help from her estranged uncle.
Winter’s Bone is a blank slate of a movie, malleable for its director’s intentions and the characters’ motivations with dialogue either lifted straight from actual Ozarks residents or merely composed how one would perceive them to speak. Visually, the digitally muted cinematography adds little where more natural color tones would better serve the film’s neorealist vibe. More specifically, it’s a neorealist attempt. One of the key problems with the film is its inability to find a tone. It’s not enough to want to be bleak and grim, a film has to earn it through pacing, tone, and yes, style; the dreaded word for independent directors looking to avoid anything resembling gloss at all costs. In doing so, it forgoes a compelling mystery for simple plot. The father is merely an engine for Ree’s struggles and ultimately not the emotional fulcrum the film desperately needs him to be.
Jennifer Lawrence gives a natural performance as the tough yet vulnerable Ree. But John Hawkes is the best thing in the film as Uncle Teardrop. So scruffy and shy in Me and You and Everyone We Know, five years later, his face looks like it has aged ten years. His skeletal frame, deep wrinkles, and a dash of gray in his beard add to the mysterious menace of the character. Other supporting players feel lived in, mainly a bail bondsman and an Army recruiter, while everyone else mostly comes off as white trash ciphers.
Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance film festival (though that accolade is warranting less and less merit), and while it clearly has connected with critics, it’s hard to describe why. Observe a film such as 2008’s Ballast, which charted the bleak lives of its impoverished leads with the third person eye of a documentary, or even David Gordon Green’s Undertow, whose Southern Gothic flavor gave it a downright Biblical edge. For all of the allure of Winter’s Bone setting, it has no sense of place.
Star Rating: ******