Don't Look Back: Character actor John Hawkes, of Deadwood fame, plays the menacing Uncle Teardrop with a face "carved out of craggy Southern Gothic."
R for drug material, language and violent content.With: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey
- Director: Debra Granik
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 100 minutes
Writer-director Debra Granik made her film debut in 2004 with a fact-based, verite-style feature about a young mother grappling with drug addiction in a dreary blue-collar backwater of upstate New York. Perhaps because it ran against the grain of inveterate American optimism, the grimly persuasive Down to the Bone didn't last long in theaters. But it lit a fire under the career of its electrifying lead, a relative unknown named Vera Farmiga, who last year won an Academy Award nomination for her drily witty turn as George Clooney's sometime lover in Up in the Air.
With any luck, Granik's new film, Winter's Bone, will work similar wonders for the resume of Jennifer Lawrence, a talented 19-year-old best known for a recurring television role on The Bill Engvall Show. Lawrence has the sweet, vulnerable features of an ingenue, but she brings a quietly indomitable bull-headedness to the part of Ree Dolly, an Ozarks teenager who has a week to find her missing father or face eviction from the wooded house where she raises her two small siblings and cares for a near-catatonic mother. Like many others in this economically blighted but closely knit rural community, Ree's father is a drug addict who cooks and deals crystal meth for a living; after he's busted, he posts his home as bail bond and disappears.
Adapted for the screen by Granik with Anne Rosellini from a visceral novel by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone tells the story of Ree's journey through familiar territory rendered strange and menacing by the lies, evasions and defiant silence of those around her.
On A Mission: In a breakthrough role, Jennifer Lawrence plays an Ozarks teenager who navigates ravaged terrain in search of her father.
On A Mission: In a breakthrough role, Jennifer Lawrence plays an Ozarks teenager who navigates ravaged terrain in search of her father. Sebastian Mlynarski
On its face, Winter's Bone, like Down to the Bone, is a bleakly realist drama about a community decimated by poverty and hopelessness, yet bound together by deep ties of class, gender and blood. Yet for a director whose prime influences have been European neo-realists, the film also represents a formal leap into fable that's suggested, but never made explicit, in the novel. Searching for clues to the fate of her errant father, Ree traverses a landscape of grungy beauty, of lowering skies and burned-out shacks strewn with accumulated junk that functions as weird sculpture, accentuated with a slow banjo played by local musicians on the soundtrack. The haggard, stubbornly withholding faces Ree encounters — most scarily that of her Uncle Teardrop, a wired, potentially lethal loose cannon played with understated menace by character actor John Hawkes, and of a secretive matriarch (Dale Dickey) who hurts and helps Ree in equal measure — are carved out of craggy Southern Gothic. And Ree, a delicately filigreed fox by comparison, is a kind of Ozarks Alice — beaten, battered and dropped down hole after hole in a Wonderland of dead ends until, in a burst of gruesome black comedy, she finds out what happened to Dad, and makes a fateful decision.
Winter's Bone isn't much of a thriller, but in its way this atmospheric, jolie-laide indie offers a new kind of women's picture. Women drive the action, sometimes brutally so, and Ree, who in another kind of movie might be made to soften into an innocent victim or roar like some avenging angel, makes a wonderfully complicated feminist heroine. At once part of and estranged from her milieu, in an early scene she stands in a doorway at school, gazing at her likely future choice between Army maneuvers and childcare classes for unwed minors. Later, when Ree pleads in one achingly painful moment for wisdom from her blitzed, unresponsive mother, we see that she's still a girl.
To the end, Granik deftly sustains the balance between far-out fable and gritty slice of life, a hint, perhaps, that in this forgotten corner of America the real and surreal may not be poles apart. As rites of passage go, Ree's journey to womanhood is unusual to say the least, the stuff of a Grimm fairy tale. Her victory, as in all realist stories worth their salt, is as tenuous and unspectacular as they come. (Recommended)