Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is in a category of its own. Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the novel from which the film's screenplay is adapted, coined the term "country noir" to describe his genre of crime novels, which take place in isolated regions of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. But I think Winter's Bone is more suitably seen as a fantasy adventure tale, with the major distinction that the film's landscape is not an imaginary world of vampires and orcish humanoids but a gritty reality unknown to most of us, a rural subculture of meth-addled monsters who live off the radar. Jennifer Lawrence, as the film's heroine Ree Dolly, does not wield a sword or possess telepathic abilities; her superpowers are honesty, determination, and a strong desire to hold onto her humanity as she journeys from a cold, bleak world into a darker, more terrifying underworld and then back to the surface.
Lawrence is convincing as Ree, a seventeen-year-old farm girl who has been forced to care for her younger siblings, nine-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and five-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), after her mother loses her mind and her father Jessup, an infamous methamphetamine manufacturer, disappears. Ree, technically still a child, shows signs of wishing she could be free of the unwanted responsibilities of raising two children (and an incapacitated mother) and running a financially strapped household. But if she ever considers abandoning her life to chase after a better dream, she never shows it. Her commitment to keeping the kids safe, well-fed, and as happy as possible remains strong, even as she passes the point of desperation. When a drug dealing, duplicitous cousin, a small-time criminal ringleader, makes Ree an offer to purchase the boy and "raise him up," she responds with outrage even as she secretly wonders if an immoral life of crime and addiction might be preferable to a freezing death from starvation. Instead of taking easy paths, Ree struggles by with support from her neighbor Sonya (Shelley Waggener), a stern but compassionate mother figure, and her only friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), a teenage mother and wife. They offer Ree all they can afford, but in a world of far-reaching poverty, that assistance isn't much.
When the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), a young man disliked, untrusted, and nearly powerless in an outskirt community that puts more faith in family ties, militias, and the right to bear arms than they do in the local law enforcement, arrives with news that if father Jessup does not show for his court date in one week the house and the land will be taken as forfeited bond, leaving the family homeless, Ree embarks on an epic quest to discover the whereabouts of her derelict father.
This quest takes her to increasingly strange realms as she encounters colorful outlaws with names like Teardrop (John Hawkes), her hardened but helpful rogue uncle, a dilapidated compound of smoking trailers and lean-tos gated by chicken wire and possessing its own primitive surveillance system, the charred ruins of a burned down meth lab, a noisy cattle auction, smoky bars, and a horrifying excursion to uncover the secrets that lie in the middle of nowhere. In the process she is lied to, threatened, beaten, and left in the cold. A few times her life comes dangerously close to ending. She has no weapons and she can hardly fight back, but sincere words, a stony expression, and her determination to care for her siblings keeps her one step above disaster.
I don't know whether to praise Granik, Woodrell, co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini, or maybe even the actors for the dialogue, but what these characters say is fresh, interesting, and always rings true. The film shines with authenticity. I've never been to the grimy world Winter's Bone depicts, but I don't for a moment doubt that it exists precisely as Granik, cinematographer Michael McDonough, and production designer Mark White have presented it. What we see tantalizingly hints at a vast universe of traditions, crimes, rules, and villains. We never see Jessup, but we receive a full, complex portrait of his many roles as a charmer, a talented musician, a disastrous family man, a trusted scientist, and a coward. We barely see Blond Milton (William White), the portly, gray-bearded kingpin of the film's criminal universe, but his brief presence resonates with frightening power.
The actors, some of whom were actual impoverished Missourians, ring true at every turn, with an especially memorable performance from Dale Dickey as Merab, a burned-out matriarch of the clan barely retaining the last shreds of her humanity. Merab abides by the clan's animalistic rules even as her face betrays tiny inklings of compassion. Degradation and filth have pushed her far past the boundaries of normal human thinking and behavior, yet a scene in which she wordlessly puts her coat around a terrified Ree is one of the most touching moments in the film.
Winter's Bone is a unique adventure, a journey into a nightmarish alternate reality. Though bleak, the movie is illuminated by the presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a role model who despite innumerable obstacles remains stronger, kinder, and more optimistic than most of us can ever manage. Winter's Bone is a story about never giving up, and so far it is one of the best films to be released this year.
Winter's Bone (2010)
d: Debra Granik w: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
(Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey)