Winter’s Bone is the tale of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-as-nails 17-year-old girl who must track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father in the Missouri Ozarks before he misses his court date and forfeits his bail – the family home she shares with her two younger siblings. Out of that simple, high-stakes premise comes one of the most bleak and memorable thrillers I’ve seen since Gone Baby Gone. Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough shoot the film with an utterly drab color palette, the Missouri gloom cloaking every frame in a desaturated blue-gray haze. The film’s atmosphere is one of utter hopelessness and yet through it all, Ree remains, frankly, a tough bitch. Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (who bears quite a resemblance to Renee Zellweger) turns in a powerful and unflinching performance. As Ree interrogates one uncooperative subject after another amid social obstacles and resistance from even her own family, Lawrence delivers every line of back-country Missoura slang with remarkable authenticity.
“You’ve always scared me,” says Ree.
“That’s because you’re smart,” gruffs John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, the inexplicably-named Teardrop. Hawkes, an actor who I’d only previously seen playing wiry, semi-geeky characters, was easily the biggest surprise in this film, completely matching Lawrence’s intensity. His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.
Also intimidating is Merab (Dale Dickey), one of the first characters Ree questions, who offers her tea and then advises with precipitous hostility to “Go home, child.” The stakes of this scene were driven higher by their ambiguous blood relation, and indeed, the film presents the conflicting familial and social allegiances amongst these characters as central to Missouri culture. They were also utterly unintimidated by guns or guts, which were ubiquitous throughout the film. As an ignorant, lazy, metrosexual coastal-dweller, I can’t speak to how accurate this depiction may be, but the characters and culture felt completely authentic. Also central to the film is “meth culture”, of which we’ve already seen a gritty, stylized version in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”; but while the medium of television grants that show the freedom of rich world-building over a long period, the greatest strength of Winter’s Bone is just how rich, believable, and utterly bleak a world it manages to craft within its runtime. And while the trailer-park drug production and rampant availability of methamphetamine are merely a backdrop to the overall mystery of this film, they manage to add yet another layer of bleakness and tension.
This indie thriller kept me fearing for its characters at every turn. The screenplay, adapted from a Daniel Woodrell novel by director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, is immensely taut with its dialogue. The characters say everything they need to say, and not a single word more. The direction and pace is fantastic, evoking shades of the Coen Brothers (it reminded me at times of both Fargo and No Country).
“You’ve paid for this in blood,” a character tells Ree toward the end. And indeed, if this film has a central theme, it is blood. How it binds or separates us, how easily it is disregarded, and what we might do to protect it. Lawrence and Hawkes’ intense performances guide the audience masterfully through this simple, effective thriller, and make it well worth the price of admission.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10