In a world as familiar as the suburbs and as alien as a sci-fi movie, seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly is put in a terrible position. As the caretaker of her younger siblings now that her mother has lapsed into a speechless depression, she finds out that if her absent father does not turn up for his court date in a week, she will lose the family’s house and land—which he put up for bond. Trouble is, she doesn’t know where her crack-dealing pappy is, and the frightening inhabitants of her rural Missouri town take any requests for information as a personal threat. But with the wellbeing of her beloved family at stake, Ree is prepared to face whoever and whatever she needs to help them. While Ree’s younger brother and sister adore her and are good kids, they’re too young to look after themselves, and Ree has very few people to turn to. Teardrop—her missing father’s brother—is a scary, violent man, haggard and brutal, and aware of the code of honour within the society they live in. Her friend Gail is stuck at home with a baby and her unwilling, angry-looking spouse, unable to offer Ree the help she needs in her search. As a determined Ree asks questions of everyone within her realm of knowledge, the bleak landscape and the community do their best to stop her.
Chris pondered aloud if the camera could have caught a flash of green grass or clear skies if only it had moved a bit either way; as it was, Winter’s Bone’s cinematography catches a place that is universally grim. Everything is cold, and worn, and old, and the world I am familiar with—happiness, smiles, friendliness—seems so impossible to get to that it is hard to believe cushy American movies are filmed on the same continent (and that my dear friend Lilli was in the same state recently having a total blast.) The gardens and houses show a world where perhaps in the past life was brighter: toys may have been new, machinery free of rust, houses freshly built. Drugs have choked the town, with its inhabitants mostly made up of crystal meth dealers and users, leaving everyone drawn and with the alarming look of someone high, or waiting for the next high. So chilling are the cast that Teardrop, constantly snorting from his little baggie, terrified me until I IMDb’d him in the car on the way home and realised he was actually John Hawkes, recently the cause of my adoration as the will-they-won’t-they father in Miranda July’s excellent Me and You and Everyone We Know. It was such a brilliant turn and I was so completely fooled that it reminded me just how plain talented actors can be. Jennifer Lawrence, as the savvy Ree, is also amazing, stopping at nothing—no matter what the threat—to save her family.
The movie manages to put a few interesting twists into the characters, turning two cinematically-hated tropes, including an army recruiter, into basically the kindest people in the film. As Ree hopes to join the army, asking when the promised $40,000 would arrive, the recruitment officer tells her gently that it wouldn’t be for a few months, and that she really needs to rethink joining the army if money is her sole motivation, and that caring for her family is a much more important job. Their heartfelt discussion is, frankly, shattering, as it was the only time I had thought: join the army! Get some money! This really is your only choice! Instead of: run away! Army bad!
Winter’s Bone is probably going to take over the Oscars, and it should. It really is a marvellous film: knock-you-down devastating, depressing and pearl-clutching, with a lake scene so viscerally horrible near the end that will have you wanting to hug Jennifer Lawrence should you ever see her in the street shopping for groceries. There is, in Ree and her siblings and the home of her father’s lover, little sparks of hope that make the movie beautiful through its cheerless exterior. In this, it shares similarities with John Hillcoat’s The Road, though Winter’s Bone conveyed a world that Hillcoat (well, Cormac McCarthy) needed an apocalypse to create. Why so dramatic, when there is such horror in the world we already have?
In summary: Above Expectations. This is a tremendous film, never tedious, and with characters you feel are desperately real and whose determination you cheer (or whose downfall you secretly wish for.) The only fault, for me, was the addition of a tree-felling dream sequence. I don’t believe a good dream sequence has even been filmed (or written.) Feel free to shoot me if you wish. (And hush, Alice in Wonderland is not counted.)