Saturday, July 17, 2010
A Chilling Winter's Bone
By Steven Rosen
(Adapted From Cincinnati CityBeat)
Winter's Bone (Review)
The Sundance Film Festival has always offered a friendly home for naturalistic, rural/small-town-set family dramas with strong suspense/thriller elements; think Ulee’s Gold and last year’s Frozen River. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — winner of the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance — continues that tradition, improving upon it in some ways but also coming on a little too strong.
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, it tells of 17-year-old backwoods Ozarks girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who needs to get her missing meth-cooking father to a court date or her family will lose their log-cabin-style home because he jumped bail.
Because her mother has had an apparent breakdown, it’s up to Ree to take care of a younger brother and sister. She could also save the homestead, alternately, by finding proof dad has died — maybe in a messy squabble with other drug dealers, of whom the picturesque but impoverished Ozarks has its share.
The film manages well at incorporating an insightfully sociological -- and evocatively cinematographic -- sense of place, yet not getting bogged down either "meaning" or a rapturous take on nature. As Ree’s search for her father quickly takes hold, putting her in contact (and conflict) with some very tough (and haggard-looking) adults, the suspense elements rise.
Granik — who also co-wrote the screenplay — moves the action and terse dialogue around quickly and economically; you have to stay alert to keep abreast of what’s happening. And the characters are never cheap stereotypes — even the meanest are rendered with subtlety.
The outstanding Lawrence, who has a refreshing fresh-scrubbed innocence (she looks a bit like a young Jewel) to match her character’s spunk and grit, gets some strong support from John Hawkes, who plays her dangerous uncle Teardrop with the ferociousness yet smartness of a young Harry Dean Stanton. The film has some moments when Ree seems far tougher than her years, as when teaching her younger brother how to gut a squirrel. Other times, as in a wrenching climactic scene in a boat when her father's fate is put in her hands, she conveys a child's horror at the cruelty of her world.
But for all the emphasis on naturalism, that world depicted here seems too cut off from the rest of America as we know it to feel totally authentic. That’s brought home in a brilliant scene when Ree tries to enlist with a wise military recruiter — is this the only contact with the greater government (other than a small-town police officer) that she has? These aren't Davy Crockett days. Her total backwoods isolation doesn’t quite ring true for our modern times. Still, Winter's Bone reminds us that Americana can be chilling.