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Winter’s Bone: A Gorgeous Nightmare in the Ozarks

There are so few movies with rich complex female leads, even fewer still that boast young women that don’t fit within the usual stereotypical labels. In Winter’s Bone, easily one of the best films of the year, we follow a teenage girl with a sick mother, a missing drug cook of a father, and two siblings she raises on her own. It’s a thriller specializing in the slow burn– shootouts, violence, and car chases aren’t really this movie’s bread and butter, instead letting the looming threat of the unknown keep you on the edge of your seat. Though the film takes its time, the movie’s high caliber of acting and gorgeous visuals should keep even the most impatient audience member riveted. It’s a back-country noir, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the performances by Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and Dale Dickey are some of the best of 2010.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is taking care of her siblings and mother in a strip of the Ozarks where most everyone is related and meth dealing seems to be the biggest business. Her father went to prison for cooking meth, but since he got out, he hasn’t been around the house. Bad news arrives in the form of the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), who informs Ree that her father was arrested, got out on a bond, and is due in court soon– the main problem for Ree is that her father put up the house and land they own as his bond, so if he doesn’t show up for his final court date, the family loses their home. She inquires with family members who’ve been involved in the meth business, and she’s especially curious about what her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) knows. The main boss in town is Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), but when she tries to find out something about her father from him, his wife Merab (Dale Dickey) turns her away multiple times. She persists, learning more and more slowly, but increasing the danger she’s in at every turn, as the clock ticks on towards losing her family’s house.

It’s tough to determine where to begin when pretty much every frame of your film is thoughtfully composed and each beat of the script is elegantly written. Take the beginning of the movie: a sequence told through pictures and music, with no dialogue of note. Debra Granik, who will be unfairly left off of the Oscar ballot in a few weeks, establishes a somber tone from the beginning. It’s children playing, but you sense the poverty, the lack of parental supervision, the isolation from your average civilization, all through the sparse music and the cinematography. There’s real beauty in the ugliness that Granik photographs– she manages to make you realize the danger and desperation of this area without simultaneously judging it. So few movies manage to transport you to another world, a place that most of us are unfamiliar with. Sometimes this involves special effects and an abundance of imagination, like Avatar or District 9, but there are plenty of very real and unusual worlds in America that have stories to be told. This film doesn’t exactly make the Ozarks look like a place I’d want to move to, but it makes it a compelling world that ignites my imagination and fills me with wonder.

Granik is also aware of the power of the individual scene. There’s no filler in this script– they build the characters while also advancing the story forward (you hearing this, Tarantino?). When we first meet Teardrop, he strikes us as a drug addict, a wife beater, and someone who would hurt Ree before helping her. The next time we see Teardrop, our feelings don’t change, but complexities are added on top of what we know about him. The characters don’t change, they grow. John Hawkes as Teardrop is unrecognizable (you might know him from Eastbound & Down or the last season of Lost), and he gives maybe the most potent and unpredictable performance of any actor this year. He mushes his words around in his mouth and spits them out like chewing tobacco. Teardrop has been beaten down by so many things in life and he has so little that makes him happy. He’s also another character in this film who has unique connections to everyone in the film, from his wife to his niece to Thump Milton to the sheriff– he talks to each character differently and each relationship develops as the plot moves forward. A silent confrontation with the sheriff and a stare that Teardrop gives the sheriff in the rear-view mirror is one of the most intense and memorable scenes of 2010. It’s the most chilling performance in a movie full of them.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this film is the handling of gender roles in this Ozark society. Here we have a world where on the surface, the women aren’t allowed to do anything and the men feel they shouldn’t have to interact with other women unless absolutely necessary. When Ree goes to visit Thump, Merab is fiercely protective of her husband to the point of threatening violence. When Teardrop threatens to beat Ree, Ree looks to his wife Gail (Lauren Sweetser) for help and she turns away. It seems like your typical world of repressed women in backcountry social politics… but look deeper. Gail helps keep Teardrop’s life together when he’s incapacitated or otherwise engaged, and Mareb seems to be doing the majority of the dirty work in Thump’s operation. A few integral scenes at the end deal with horrific turns of events and tough decisions being made, and the only ones actively in the picture are the women of the community. Is this because the women are protecting the men and keeping them safe from potential charges brought up for this illegal activity… or are the women in this society stronger and more proactive than they seem on the surface?

Dale Dickey is obviously the type of character actress who is limited in the types of characters she plays. Her tough wrinkled face could do the acting for her– in a lesser version of a film like this, Merab’s appearance would be enough to suggest her character. Dickey doesn’t settle though, digging deep and bringing a strong sense of emotion and ruthlessness conveyed through her eyes and physicality. Here is a woman who is willing to see Ree get crippled and abused in order to teach her a lesson that will save her life long-term– she gives the most extreme version of “tough love” imaginable. Then, you have Jennifer Lawrence. None of the big-name actresses of her generation could have delivered this role. There’s an authenticity to her character that is never broken. She’s crafty, yet she’ll also make mistakes that come from inexperience and youth. She’s angry about the circumstances, yet when authority figures question her, she’s fiercely defensive of her father and her family. She has no obvious reason to, but it’s clear that she believes the best way out of this situation is to follow the code that these people live by, the code which she was raised with. Is her loyalty a mistake, or is it a noble choice? The movie never tells us how to feel about it– smart move. Lawrence gives an honest, heartfelt, and tough performance with so much determination and emotion. She is the pulse of Winter’s Bone, one of the smartest, most economic, and most intelligent movies in some time.

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~ by russellhainline on January 16, 2011.

2 Responses to “Winter’s Bone: A Gorgeous Nightmare in the Ozarks”

  1. As we discussed at lunch….fully agree and enjoyed reading your review.

  2. […] Fontaine, Un Prophete 5. Anthony Dod Mantle & Enrique Chediak, 127 Hours 4. Michael McDonough, Winter’s Bone 3. Hong Kyung-Pyo, Mother 2. Roger Deakins, True Grit 1. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, […]

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