Winter’s Bone has been getting lots of good reviews lately, and I’m always interested in seeing good films but simultaneously nervous about not getting what others see in them. Winter’s Bone is a fairly miserable film, showing the reality of life in the Ozarks of south-western Missouri, which makes for an experience that I don’t particularly seek out in my cinematic entertainments, but leaves you admiring the honesty of the film-makers and the powerful performance from Jennifer Lawrence in the central role.
Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl who has dropped out of school to look after her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister because their mother is catatonic with depression and their father is not around, out making his money from cooking methamphetamine. The story starts with a sheriff informing Ree that the father has used the family home to secure his bond and, if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will be evicted. So Ree has to seek out her dad to keep the small house they have, visiting the people who know where he might be (who are all vaguely related but are also in the lawless fraternity that exists out in these stark and desolate nowhere places, proud of their defiance of the police and not keen on any asking any questions, even if she is kin), trying to find some answers.
The film is unshowy and quiet – there is no score, with music only appearing occasionally, as when Ree visits the woman who had been involved with her dad after he left their mum. It’s raw, unfiltered, bleak and frankly depressing – Ree is a smart girl but lives in a place with extremely limited options; she even contemplates joining the army just for the $40,000 associated with signing up. It’s also a place where men don’t regard women too highly, and a woman’s place is to do what her man tells her. Ree knows all this, facing it with an intelligent but resigned determination; it’s quite heartbreaking when she’s teaching her younger siblings how to shoot a gun and skin squirrels for food because they’ll have to know how to cope on their own in case anything happens to her.
It is adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, so there is a bleak poetry to the film, and Debra Granik directs (and co-wrote the screenplay) without fuss or excess drama – some of the later turns in the story would have been more dramatic in another version of the same movie, but she maintains the dogged reality of the piece. She filmed in the area in which it is set, apparently using locals as background actors, giving it an air of authority and realism that makes even more depressing. There are some recognisable faces – John Hawkes is excellent as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, full of menace and anger but also some sense of family; Dale Dickey (most recently seen as Patty the daytime hooker on My Name Is Earl) is the grizzled wife of the most senior member of the local criminals – but the film is all about the impressive Lawrence, in nearly every scene, resilient and unbreakable in her determination to look out for her family but maintain the local customs, made even more impressive that her character is so young and has to be so old. This isn’t the sort of film I’d see again, but it is an impressive piece of cinema, even if it is rather downbeat and grim.