Winter's Bone

2011-01-14 17:03
What it's about:

Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl living in abject poverty, already has enough on her plate taking care of two younger siblings and a mother paralysed by mental illness. But when she receives news that her suddenly missing drug-dealing father had put up their family home as bond for his bail, she embarks on a journey to find him – or his dead body – before she and her family lose what little they have.

What we thought:

Winter's Bone is a film very much defined by its music. It may not boast the kind of musical score to take on the bombastic power of Tron: Legacy, Inception or Shutter Island but no film released over the last year features music that captures so perfectly the spirit of what's going on onscreen than Winter's Bone spectacular use of rootsy country music. The songs and instrumental passages are brilliant slices of timeless Americana in and of themselves but, when accompanied by the film's stunningly bleak visuals, they work on an even more profound level.

Winter's Bone has all the technical proficiencies expected of what will undoubtedly be an awards contender, but for all its masterful direction, intelligent storytelling and unforgettable performances, its true triumph lies in its intense, potent emotionalism. It is a film whose pace can charitably be described as "leisurely" and it is almost unremittingly bleak from its sombre opening moments to its bittersweet ending, but it grasps you by the heart, refusing to let go until the final frame of its mercifully brief 100-minute running time has run through the projector.

It has offhandedly been referred to as a thriller but that paints an overly simple, and ultimately unfair, picture of the film's complex, emotional power. Are there moments that will have you on the edge of your seat in suspense? Sure, but however intense those moments are, they're only a small part of the film's rich emotional tapestry.Winter's Bone is at its most effective when tapping into emotions that are far subtler, far harder to adequately describe than mere suspense.

And all of this can be found in the film's music - none moreso than in the hauntingly beautiful songs that break up the film's storyline. It may at first seem an odd choice to bring the action to a halt by suddenly shifting the focus to full musical numbers, played mostly by musicians that are incidental to the film's main plotline, but their inclusion is the film's greatest achievement. Not only do they act as a breather, a chance to process what is going on in the story proper but, more crucially, they bring the underlying emotions to the fore. These are country songs that are beautifully perfect in their minimalist purity. They are songs that dig deep into the heart of rural Americana; rooting out all the earthy beauty and cool toughness, the sense of desperation and the sense of hope that underpin every last moment of this film.  

Much more than the music though, credit for the film's artistic success has mostly been given to two immensely talented women. This may only be writer-director Debra Granik's second full-length feature but there is little doubt that she will provide fierce competition to established stalwarts like Darren Aronofsky and The Coen Brothers in the coming awards season. The film's basic plot is handled with efficient confidence but it is her ability to draw emotion not just from the talented and relatively unknown cast but from the mostly-unseen-until-now setting of rural Missouri as well.

Winter's Bone's story is as much about its plot and its characters is as it is about introducing what is essentially an entire alien world to the vast, vast majority of its audience. It's a world where its dirt-poor inhabitants not only live on its land but off it too. It's a world not only of people who are familiar with each other but where there are complicated blood ties between them as well. It is a world set on vast forested land, mostly untouched by human development but whose peaceful existence can be racked just as easily by human cruelty, human survival and even, at times, human kindness. Perhaps it's not as alien as it might at first suggest.

The characters in this film are perfect reflections of this weirdly familiar foreign existence and it is a great credit to a largely unknown cast of actors that these characters were as perfectly portrayed as they are. Two actors, in particular, are simply astoundingly good. John Hawkes brings a huge amount of depth to Ree's uncle, Teardrop Dolly, a flawed character with complex motives. Better still is the film's star, Jennifer Lawrence who creates a young woman that would be an excellent role model to young girls everywhere: strong, determined, brave, selfless and kind. I was sure Natalie Portman would bag the awards for her mesmerising work in the upcoming Black Swan but young Ms. Lawrence might just beat her to the post. She is that good.

Winter's Bone may not be an easy watch and it may not be for everyone but it is a richly rewarding, humane and complex work. Between this and The Concert (which may well be its polar opposite in tone) 2011 is off to a terrific and very promising cinematic start.

An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact.
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