Sep 28, 2010

Film review: Winter's Bone

DIR: Debra Granik
CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey

Debra Granik’s first film, DOWN TO THE BONE, served notice of a raw directorial talent, with an eye able to spot as yet under-utilised acting talent (in that film it was Vera Farmiga, who has since gone from strength to strength and collected her first Oscar nomination). WINTER’S BONE confirms that impression of Granik, and again she’s found an exceptional young actress to take the leading role.

The film is set in the Ozark mountains and follows 17 year old Ree (Lawrence), who has been left to raise her young brother and sister herself thanks to a father who spends most his time cooking meth and a mother who is mentally ill, and barely communicates. When her father skips bail Ree and her family stand to lose their house, and everything else they own, so she sets out to find either her father or his body, with reluctant help from her uncle ‘Teardrop’ (Hawkes).

WINTER’S BONE is a tough film to pin down; part thriller (though it often moves at a very slow pace), part character study, part exploration of a very insular community (the criminal fraternity that Ree’s father was involved in), it tries to do a lot of things all at once, and almost completely succeeds.

Granik’s eye is humane, but it’s also unflinching, unsparing, unsentimental. She’s not afraid of the ugly parts of this story, nor indeed those of the landscape in which it is set, with the broken down state of everything hammering home the poverty that these characters live in. That said, as ugly as some the settings are, the way Granik films them is striking, she completely immerses us in this world which, happily, is quite alien to most of us (the friend who came to the screening with me remarked that the poverty and the setup of the society struck him as almost feudal). Towards the end of the film there is some tough imagery, notably a beating meted out to Ree for disobeying local drug lord Little Arthur and his wife (Dickey). However, most of the time WINTER’S BONE deals not in visceral thrills but in tension.

What Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini really get right here, apart from the outstanding character writing, is the pace. The film moves slowly, but there is an undercurrent of genuine tension in almost every scene. Violence is seldom used, but the threat of it is in every word as Ree begins searching for her father, who has clearly transgressed against his employers. There’s also a disturbing sense that the threat could come from just about anyone, as when Ree first attempts to involve her uncle in the search he responds by telling her that she’d best stop looking.

In the end though, WINTER’S BONE is held together by a collection of outstanding performances. Jennifer Lawrence is a real find, just 19 when the film was shot, she holds centre stage in practically every frame of the film, and is utterly compelling. Ree’s desperation is visceral and moving, never more so than when she goes to see an army recruiter because she needs the signing bonus to save her home. She’s vulnerable, but there’s also great strength there, and those two qualities play off against each other effectively in Lawrence’s performance. There is loud chatter about an Oscar nomination (and there has been since the film debuted at Sundance), and it certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.

The entire cast is excellent, with Granik handling the cast carefully, and clearly weeding out anything inauthentic. If you didn’t know better (and if you didn’t recognise at least a few players) it would be easy to mistake this for a found footage film, so unaffected is the acting. John Hawkes, a capable character actor who has never really broken out, is excellent as ‘Teardrop’, at first he seems a rather simplistic character, but Hawkes adds layers as the film runs on, culminating in a sad closing scene which leaves his character’s fate ambiguous. For me though the real star turn in the film (outside of Jennifer Lawrence’s) is from Dale Dickey, whose Merab seems to be a matriarch in the Ozarks meth trade. She’s got an incredibly memorable look, with her hard, deeply lined, face, and she gives a performance to match it; all flinty and unfeeling, and though it is Little Arthur we’re told to fear it Merab who is the terrifying figure here.

The only issues with the film are small, but not insignificant. Given Merab’s character in the rest of the film I had slight trouble buying her eventual willingness to help Ree, but much more significant for me is Granik’s use of a short, black and white, dream sequence. That sequence popped me right out of the film, which is a real problem for a movie that exists to plunge us into another person’s reality. There is such a naturalistic feel to the rest of the film that that short sequence, which may as well bellow, “you’re watching a movie” was a real and unwelcome jolt for me.

On the whole though, WINTER’S BONE is a hugely rewarding film, and it marks both Debra Granik and Jennifer Lawrence as names to keep a close eye on in the future.

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