Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Movie review: Winter's Bone

I saw Winter's Bone last week, and it's definitely a film worth writing about.

The plot

Set in a tiny town in the mountainous region of Missouri known as the Ozarks, it's the story of Ree Dolly, who's 17 and, since her father – who has the dubious honour of being the community's most talented meth cooker - disappeared a few months back and her mother is almost completely incapacitated by depression, is the one looking after herself and her two younger siblings.

When the local sheriff arrives to warn Ree that her father's court date is due and that, because he used the value of their house to cover his bail bond, if he doesn't show they'll lose the house. So she sets out to find him – a decision that takes her into the complex, dangerous world of the area's criminal element.

However, it's not a plot-heavy film – but, like any good film that's not explicitly story-driven, it more than makes up for it in other ways.

Visually stunning

A lot of the screen time is devoted to shots of the countryside, and it's a captivating mix of stark natural beauty and the detritus left by people the wrong side of the poverty line. Ramshackle houses and junked cars are framed by high mountains and thick dense forests. As you might guess from how it sounds, it's by no means pretty – but there's a poignant beauty to it nonetheless.

Brilliant performances

Jennifer Lawrence, who I've never seen in anything before. is utterly brilliant as Ree; there is barely a scene she isn't in, and she plays the tough, yet vulnerable, teenager with complete believability. It should be a breakthrough role for her and I know I'll be surprised if she doesn't go on to do a lot more1.

John Hawkes plays Teardrop, and even though I'd seen some excellent work from him in Deadwood and Lost, this makes those performances looked phoned in. The intensity just pours out of him.

Garrett Dillahunt makes yet another appearance in something I've liked a great deal2 - and something thematically and aesthetically similar to two of those, the Cormac McCarthy (more on him later) adaptations The Road and No Country for Old Men. He once again does a great job as the sheriff.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the strength of the performance by Dale Dickey, who I'd only ever remember seeing play Patty ('the daytime hooker') in My Name Is Earl. Here she plays a tough-as-nails local matriarch with chilling intensity.

1IMDB tells me she's playing Mystique in the new X-Men prequel film – which is yet  another reason to see it.
2I mentioned him in my recent post on Deadwood.


Traditional Ozark music runs through the whole film, and adds yet another layer to the experience. At one point the characters visit a house where some people are 'jamming', and it's quite mesmerising.

Social commentary

Above everything is the fact that the film is a snapshot of a culture rarely presented in any kind of media. It's set in the present day, but the way the people act would, in many ways, be identical to how they acted a hundred, or even two hundred years ago. Outsiders are shunned, and they make their own rules; the law and the government are minor stumbling blocks. It's a tough life, and one that breeds tough people; these drug-dealing hillbillies are far more Deliverance than they are Cletus and Brandine or Jed, Jethro, Ellie-May and Granny. 


As noted, it's a film about people who live – by my own personal standards at least – bleak and awful lives. But they still manage to find things to cling to, reasons to keep from going under. And that's what gives the film its balance – a sense of hope. It's subtle, but it's significant. It's something the writer Annie Proulx3 does exceptionally well, albeit with stories set in different regions of rural America.

That alone, though, wouldn't make a truly great film; however, there's also a great undercurrent of tension, a threat of imminent violence that's a hallmark of another great American writer who deals with tough people in harsh situations: the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country for Old Men – two films based on his works that I kept on thinking of while watching.

So yeah, it's pretty kickass4. It also won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, which is no mean feat. So, if it sounds like the sort of thing you'd like, get out there and see it. Adelaideans, it's still on (at the time of writing) at Palace in the city.

3A Pulitzer and National Book Award winner. She wrote the short story that became Brokeback Mountain; other books include Accordion Crimes, The Shipping News (also a film), Postcards and That Old Ace in the Hole.
4Don't ask me what the title means, though. It's never explained.

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