Winter’s Bone Review

(2.5 STARS)

Winter’s Bone is a funny little film that fails more than it succeeds, but remains intriguing throughout. I felt that, despite featuring a brilliant performance by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, it sort of sputtered along without much of a plot for too long for me to really connect to it. The setting is unique and wonderfully realized by director Debra Granik, but I thought she used it as a crutch too often. It’s a tough one to rate, really, because there were aspects of this film that I loved, but I’m afraid it’s a case of the whole not equaling the sum of its parts.

In the backwoods of Missouri, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) must provide for her entire family. Her mother is catatonic, her father has been convicted of dealing meth, and she’s responsible for her young brother and sister. The law comes around one afternoon to inform Ree that her father is on the lam and that he has put up their house as collateral for bail. So if he doesn’t show up for court in a few days, Ree and her family will be homeless. Ree doesn’t believe in asking for help, so she takes it upon herself to track him down. But in this part of the country, folks aren’t too keen to talk. As one character says, “Talking just causes witnesses.” So Ree is forced to go it alone, without even the help of her father’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes).

When I say this film takes place in the backwoods, I mean Deliverance-style backwoods. Electricity has no place here. Only a lucky few have vehicles (and those are just run-down pick-ups). And the way women are treated is appalling and completely foreign to me. It’s this setting that’s Granik’s accomplishment here. It gives the film a really distinctive look and tone.

Granik’s other major accomplishment is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Ree. It’s just masterful work from the young actress. She’s a portrait of desperation and determination. She’s strong, but vulnerable at the same time. She’s got everything to lose, and she knows it, but she doesn’t let it show. I totally get the Oscar buzz and think it’s 100% deserved. As much as I love The Kids Are All Right and the great work by its leads, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, I have to say Jennifer Lawrence would be walking home with an Oscar if it was up to me (at least at this early point in the season).

The rest of the cast is also relatively unknown. John Hawkes starred in HBO’s Deadwood (and had a minor role on the final season of LOST), but his film credits are pretty thin. He’s quite good here in a role that doesn’t call for a lot of emotion, but it calls for him to have a strong presence. His importance in the film is almost indefinable, which is probably why he hasn’t been talked up much for awards consideration, but his performance is something I’ll remember from this film. Dale Dickey plays Merab, a woman who plays the bruising sidekick to Ronnie Hall’s Thump Milton, the area’s drug kingpin. Hers is another really unique role, the kind one wouldn’t expect a middle-aged woman to play, and she does it to great effect.

With all that said, I still didn’t love the film. The pacing is too slow for a narrative this thin, and while I appreciate that Granik didn’t bloat the running time with smoke and mirrors, I think the pace and lack of narrative direction is a bit of a deadly combination. I had to work to keep my eyes from drooping a few times. And while I thought the setting was unique and totally embraced by Granik, I thought it too often drove the plot. Jack Nicholson said in The Departed that he didn’t want to be a product of his environment. Everyone, Ree included, is a product of their environment in Winter’s Bone.

Despite my objections, I think Winter’s Bone has a real chance at a Best Picture nomination, and I hope Jennifer Lawrence can sneak into the stacked Best Actress category. It’s a flawed film, but one worth checking out, if for no other reason than to witness a young master like Lawrence at work.

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