Winter's Bone doesn't reinvent the wheel, but I'd highly recommend it all the same.
It's about a seventeen year old girl, living in the Ozarks, whose father seems to have jumped bail. That might not be much of a problem, except that he put the family home up for bail that she lives in with her nearly catatonic mother and two younger siblings, along with the piece of property that's been in their family for many years. She sets out to find out where her father is, so that they don't get thrown out of their home and off of their land. Her father had been arrested for cooking Meth, again, so the crowd of folks she's trying to get information from are not what we would tend to consider friendly.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, the unfortunate protagonist, and she does so pretty astoundingly. There's a grounded element to her performance that is impressive in someone this young and is exactly what the material and the character call for. I have a real affection for her character in this film. She plays a very strong young woman, but not in the clichéd way we've come to expect that characterization. The strength of this character is in the degree to which she marches forward, doing what she has to do, and what she believes is right. There's nothing flashy about her. She might be a little bit more intelligent than many of the other characters populating this film, but what that really means is that she's smart enough to continue to make progress in her search for her father, and smart enough to stay alive in the process. On top of that, she's continuing to take care of both of her siblings and her mother, and none of that is ever really played for the weepy kind of drama that is so often a part of a narrative that includes those elements. For Ree, it's just her life, and she does what she has to do. There's nothing extraordinary about it. Jennifer Lawrence was a surprise nomination for the Best Actress Oscar this year, and now I understand exactly why she was nominated. The level of reality she brings to this role is something to behold. Considering the list of nominees, I'd be surprised if she won, but it couldn't be said that she was completely undeserving either. I don't pay much attention to various awards, but generally there's at least one interesting category each year because of the nominees. This year, I think the Best Female Lead category is going to be that category.
John Hawkes plays Teardrop, Ree's uncle who may or may not have any idea why her father has gone on the run, and may or may not have any information that will help her find him. Hawkes has been a great character actor for a long time now, and Winter's Bone may just be the film that helps break him out of that category, because he is phenomenal as well. His character comes across as being right on the bleeding edge of horrific violence at just about any moment, and at the same time, there's a sympathetic aspect to him which keeps him human and someone we very much hope Ree can rely on. It's a very different role for Hawkes, who has made it his bread and butter playing the slightly geeky, nerdy secondary characters in a number of films, but it's obviously not beyond his range because he nails it with the same kind of subtle perfection the rest of the film is built on. I hope to see him getting a wider variety of roles and maybe even one or two lead roles in the future because I have the feeling after seeing this that we've barely begun to scratch the surface of the kind of actor John Hawkes could actually be if given the opportunity.
In it's way, this is essentially film noir. Instead of being set in some shadowy urban hell, with the slang so long associated with the genre, this is a snowy rural hell, with a language still very much it's own. In almost every other way, it fits in with the traditions of the genre, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The reason we still have such an obsession with noir is because when it's done well, it makes for great film making. I don't necessarily think I would call this film "great," though. Extremely good, definitely, but a degree or two shy of great. It does a better job of making the world these characters live in very, very real than most films do, especially when there's some variety of mystery element to it. I think this is would be a nearly perfect companion piece to Gone Baby Gone, which is another extremely well made film with some really strong hints of film noir, and whose setting informs the real gravity and reality of the film. As a narrative this might be a better film, if for no other reason than that the majority of the actors are unrecognizable and there's nothing very slick about it. It's very much just this story, about this girl, experiencing these things, and that kind of bluntness is exactly what this particular story needs.
One of the things I find really refreshing about this film is the degree to which it doesn't really depend on big, dramatic sequences to make it work. All of this is played as just being the life of this particular group of people, and that nothing about it is very dramatic or unusual. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't make light of it, but for these characters, this is just the way life is. This girl is the lynch pin in a family that is dysfunctional, but that she loves very much, and that is surrounded by so much "dysfunction" that to her, and to all of the other characters, nothing here is either shocking or unusual. Is it unfortunate? Sure, but not shocking. It paints a picture of a bleak world, but that world is exceptionally real. In part because of that degree of reality, and because of the nature of the characters, it's also an extremely subtle film. I can't think of a better way to say it other than to say that it's very, very quiet. It's dialog intensive, but also silence intensive. There are a lot of long pauses which don't play for dramatic effect, but very much inform the reality of the story and the characters. This is a world where people don't show their hand, play everything close and don't really trust anyone around them, often with very good reason. It's a world with it own code of conduct and it's own social standards that are strictly enforced and because it's a rural world, stepping outside of those standards can leave a person being very much the outsider in a community in which people very much need each other to survive, especially Ree.
I'm shocked by the degree to which I was unaware of the director as I was watching this film. The tone is so successfully naturalistic that I didn't really consider the directors choices at all as I was watching it, and that's unusual for me. In considering that, I can honestly say I don't think any of the films very slight flaws can really be laid at her feet. The degree to which the reality of this film succeeds is very much in her hands, and that's quite an accomplishment. I'm relatively sure she never considered the fact that this quiet little mountain mystery would be nominate for Best Picture, but again, I can't say it's completely undeserving of the nomination either. There are three of this years nominees I still haven't seen, but that being said, of the seven I have seen, I can't say I'd be completely disappointed if this film won. In my heart of hearts, there are at least two other films I believe are more deserving of the title, but I don't think it would be a sham for this film to win either. It certainly wouldn't be the fiasco that Crash was. Needless to say, I'm eagerly awaiting news of Debra Granik's next project.
I can highly recommend Winter's Bone to anyone with a decent enough attention span to be able to appreciate films which aren't completely reliant on things blowing up, people being shot, stabbed or otherwise maimed, and can appreciate a good, character driven mystery. Not that I don't like films which are reliant on things blowing up and people being shot stabbed or otherwise, but film making that is far above average is something I can enjoy generally, and that's what this is, nearly great film making with a few exceptional performances and a reality which is unusually well developed and laid out. Give it a shot.
As usual, you can pick up a copy of Winter's Bone on Blu-Ray or DVD from my Amazon Store, and I've added copies of Gone Baby Gone, because it's also a damned good movie.