An achingly authentic, hard-bitten portrait of survivalist
determination and familial sacrifice, Winter’s
Bone employs a conventional Amerindie template – cold, rural locale,
parental and socio-economic tensions, plaintive soundtrack songs and evocative
landscape cinematography – without ever feeling stale, forced or phony. In
Missouri’s Ozarks, 17-year-old Ree (stunning newcomer Jennifer Lawrence) is
informed that her crank-cooking father leveraged the family residence for bail
and, if he doesn’t get himself to court, she, her younger brother and sister,
and her mentally unstable mom will be out of house and home. Director Debra
Granik (Down to the Bone) captures
not only her milieu but Ree’s role as mother/provider to her siblings in quick,
poignant intro snapshots of backyard trampoline jumping and laundry chores, setting
a somber but never egregiously sentimental tone which carries through once the
narrative proper commences. Upon learning about the mess her MIA father Jessup
has gotten the family into, Ree sets about trying to find the man, an endeavor
stymied by Jessup’s former drug-making acquaintances who are decidedly
uninformative, partly because Jessup has gotten himself into some sort of
mysterious trouble, and partly because Ree – having the temerity to carry
herself as a strong-willed, no-nonsense independent woman – defies the region’s
ingrained male-dominated power hierarchy.
To those she questions, Ree’s being a woman is almost as galling as her actual desire to find her father, yet while Winter’s Bone (based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell) certainly celebrates its protagonist’s fearless, selfless gumption – her investigation driven by a need to maintain security for, and custody of, her dependant brother and sister – the film is anything but a sexism-is-bad screed. Deeply familiar with her milieu, Granik posits Ree’s hardships as simply the byproducts of the way things are in her particular scrap of rural nowhereland, where money is sparse and men (and their subservient female cronies) treat women as second-class beings. In lesser hands, Ree’s quest from druggie shanty to cattle auction to nightmarish barn would be fodder for moralistic exploitation-cinema claptrap, but Granik refrains from either over-uglifying or glossing up her material; where exclamation points might have been, the film merely shrugs at horror, resigned as it is to this little-seen sub-world’s poverty, need and twisted codes of conduct. Michael McDonough’s cinematography neither lingers grotesquely nor turns a blind eye to the grunginess of the area or its inhabitants, allowing ugliness and beauty to appear as they may, untethered to didactic message-making.
Ree and her clan are as tied to their lot in life as their dogs are chained up in the yard, but in Ree’s refusal to yield to inflexible bondsman, repugnant relatives, and self-interested sheriffs, hope nonetheless slowly blooms. Still, optimism, whenever earned, comes in short bursts, and always laced with an undercurrent of unease born from the realization that lives like these proceed as if on a tightrope, and must thus be navigated with great care. Ree’s journey reunites her with mean uncle Teardrop (a magnificent John Hawkes) as well as ultimately entails [spoiler alert] her taking a pound of flesh from her father as both reimbursement for past crimes and down-payment on future stability, a sequence of chainsaws, handshakes and heartache that brings to the fore the near-impossible weight of absentee-parent sorrow and emotional-psychological suffering that besets Ree. As Teardrop, whose wiry frame, drawn face and scraggly goatee suggest a man dying from the inside (and not just from his smokes and coke), Hawkes conveys regret and bitterness with guileless naturalism, highlighted by a final exchange that suggests both redemption and acquiescence to fate in oblique glances. Ultimately, though, Winter’s Bone belongs to Lawrence, whose performance – effortlessly balancing rugged rawhide toughness, single-minded altruism, and emotional vulnerability – proves this eloquently understated film’s simultaneously sorrowful and heartening soul.