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Review: “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

It would be inaccurate to say 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is shouldering the weight of the world. It’s more that she’s shouldering the weight of raising her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and baby sister (Ashlee Thompson) while caring for her mute, near-catatonic mother (Shelley Waggener) and keeping her family home running despite abject poverty and her meth-cooking father’s disappearance. That’s hardly miraculous. The remarkable thing is that Ree has seen very little to give her faith in people (and certainly not in her mistrusting, insular family). And still she believes people are good, or at least decent. Her circumstances may have hardened her, but they haven’t hardened her heart.

In this way, “Winter’s Bone” shares some commonalities with director Debra Granik’s first feature, “Down to the Bone,” a decidedly undramatic look at the unremarkable life of Irene, a checkout clerk sinking deeper into drug addiction. Irene is unremarkable, but her circumstances force her into limbo; she must choose to climb or fall. Though “Winter’s Bone” is a creative step beyond that film’s simplicity, Ree, within her world, is living an average life. But Granik’s adaptation is stylized, given the unnerving feel of the best of film noir — even though “Winter’s Bone” is set in the forbidding Ozarks. Or maybe it’s the setting that amplifies the noir, since the best films of the genre turn setting into a character all its own. The elements are there: the conflicted, dogged hero; the crime in the past that thrives in the present; the bystanders who know more than they’ll say; the truth that’s dredged up no matter how deep the criminals buried it or how closely they guard the grounds. Even the dialogue, in its abrupt mountain way, has its place. There are no one-liners, but the characters choose their words with the utmost care. Every word means what it means, and it means something more.

Ree has learned the value of not saying a syllable more than she has to. Silence keeps people breathing. Members of the Dolly clan may be Ree’s family in blood, but they abide their own codes of behavior. They will not endanger themselves to help one of their own. And Jessup Dolly, Ree’s father, has done some things his relatives cannot forgive. So Ree finds herself hitting wall after wall as she searches for her father, who put the family homestead up for bond to get out of jail and then vanished. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a volatile tweaker, warns her to stop asking questions. Her attempts to speak with Thump (Ronnie Hall), the Dolly family mafioso, are met with stony silence and then violence arranged by Merab (a wonderfully scary Dale Dickey). Ree, Merab reasons, deserves it: She’s an upstart, a nuisance who demands that the Dolly clan help her siblings and her mother. She does not respect the unspoken behavioral code. Still, as angry as her behavior makes Merab, Thump and their underlings, it also impresses them. Ree, just 17, has the grit of a woman twice that age. She refuses to back down when her family’s welfare is on the line.

Based on her fierce performance, it would appear the same could be said of 20-year-old Kentucky-born actress Jennifer Lawrence. She supplies Ree with an amazing, iron-tough will and also vulnerability, which she knows instinctively she must hide if she wants to survive her quest to find Jessup dead or alive. Whatever praise critics have heaped on her for this role, Lawrence deserves it. Dickey and Hawkes deserve equal amounts of kudos. Dickey’s Merab is a fascinating enigma — a woman made hard by her surroundings, but one still capable of showing kindness (however bizarre) to those who deserve it. Hawkes, a character actor of brilliant subtlety, allows Teardrop, known as a screw-up and wild card, to undergo a believable transformation. Teardrop’s motivations run deeper than scoring his next fix; he’s torn between the need to keep in line and his desire to find his brother and protect Ree and her siblings. Doing right by Ree’s family doesn’t necessarily mean doing the right thing. In this oft-overlooked world Granik turns the camera on, “right” and “wrong,” sometimes, are one and the same.

Grade: A+

12 Responses

  1. M! You’re back! And what a review to come back with! This one’s currently sitting comfortably in my Top Three of 2010. The other two will remain a mystery until next month. Get excited.

    “There are no one-liners, but the characters choose their words with the utmost care. Every word means what it means, and it means something more.”

    Even more than Lawrence, even more than Hawkes, that’s what put this movie over the edge for me. Makes you appreciate every last word these hillbillies have to say and it’s just so rare to find a great script like this that goes so far on so little. If Sorkin hadn’t hit an effing grand slam with Social Network, this would be an easy #1 for Best Script of the Year.

    Great review, girl. Keep it up.

  2. I loved this film when I saw it and had faint quibbles that I couldn’t quite voice and couldn’t remotely derail my enjoyment of the picture, and it hasn’t left my mind since. This is set in the Ozarks, but I’ve been to Appalachian country and the situation there is horrifically similar. Heck, now that I’m in school in Alabama, I can see how one doesn’t need to be up in the hills to see the ravages of meth production and an economy that only ever seems to get worse for these people.

    As I watched it, I thought that Granik played with stereotypes just a bit, but also that I’ve absolutely seen these people in my life. I was then bewildered to learn that Lawrence, who frankly has given a breakout role to rival Christoph Waltz bursting out of nowhere with the role of a lifetime, got her start on the Bill Engvall Show. Now THAT was a lazy mining of Southern stereotypes that are lazy and inaccurate. Winter’s Bone, as it went along, kept using its stark, hands-off approach to somehow keep turning and layering these types into something both intimate and epic, an indie thriller doubling as Greek epic. This is absolutely going to be on my best of list this year.

  3. One of only 4 (out of 106) movies to receive five out of five stars from me this year so will certainly be in the top half of my top ten for the year. Good to see Jennifer Lawrence getting a golden globe nomination, hopefully Oscar and bafta will follow and she wins all three. I would have liked to have seen John Hawkes nominated too.

  4. Gotta agree. Glad you loved it too and TearDrop is the shizz!!!

  5. So glad you’re back, M!

    I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen this yet. I’ll get to it.

    • @ Aiden R — Shucks, you really know how to make a girl feel good. That’s a nice welcome back to blogland. The dialogue in “Winter’s Bone” blew me away. There is so little of it, but it’s all incredibly precise. All of it serves a purpose.

      @ Jake — It’s funny you mentioned “The Bill Engvall Show” — I had that in my review but took it out! I suppose as long as you’re a great actor — and Jennifer Lawrence really is — it doesn’t matter where you got your start. Unless you got your start as an extra in one of the “Twilight” movies, which I cannot forgive.

      @ Fandango — Hawkes absolutely got shafted. His character had so much depth, and he had to be very deliberate in showing all the layers. I also thought Dickey was remarkable, another character who seems shallow but has a lot of depth if you’re patient.

      @ Kaiderman — Yep, Hawkes is the man. When is someone going to start giving him bigger parts? Maybe “Winter’s Bone” will make people take notice finally.

      @ Blake — You have to see this. I’m ranking it up there among the best of film noir. Seriously.

  6. […] more here: Review: “Winter's Bone” (2010) « M. Carter @ the Movies VN:R_U [1.9.6_1107]Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)VN:F [1.9.6_1107]Rating: 0 (from 0 […]

  7. welcome back! I’ve missed your writing, but you’re back with a bang. Great film, great essay.

  8. Many happy returns! Winter’s Bone never made it my way, but Netflix should solve that. You and Aiden really seemed to like it.

  9. This instantly shot into top 3 of 2010 for me, though I’ve yet to finish my list since I’ve got a few films left to check out before I’m satisfied with my cinematic year. Suffice to say that this is just flat-out brilliant, beautiful in its simplicity and its muted palette and atmosphere. It’s a great noir, no doubt, and easily among the best of the neo-noirs released in the last ten years or so, with a great lead in Lawrence and a great supporting player in Hawkes.

    I can easily see this being great for the former but not so much for the latter, though I can always dream that Hawkes gets the recognition he so richly deserves.

    What I really like about the movie is how straightforward and minimalist it is, and how it still speaks volumes about its various themes nonetheless– the relative strength of family bonds, for one, and of course how people live in devastating poverty. If nothing else it’s a sobering look at Ozarks living. Granik was wise to shoot in Missouri.

    • @ Colin — The one thing about being gone is that everyone makes me feel so happy to return!

      @ Fitz — “Winter’s Bone” really earned any and all praise heaped on it. If you like neo-noir, you’ll love this one because it’s neo-noir with an unusual setting. The movie’s got a slow burn to it, but it sticks with you.

      @ Andrew — One of my favorite things about “Winter’s Bone” is the dialogue. It’s hard to believe a movie with so little dialogue could keep you riveted, but the characters choose their words with such care that the audience — at least the patient members of the audence — know to sit up and listen. You and me both are dreaming Hawkes could get some good press for this. He’s long been a favorite character actor of mine. Like Chris Cooper, he just needs one good “Breach”-type film to push him to leading man status.

  10. […] “Winter’s Bone” Jennifer Lawrence is a force of nature in Debra Granik's neo-noir "Winter's […]

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