On DVD: Winter’s Bone

A harrowing portrait of a teenager forced to be an adult out in the Ozarks, the epicenter of crystal meth activity, “Winter’s Bone” feels more harsh and real than any other film that brief summary evokes. Debra Granik’s film seems unequivocally true, so while I’m sure Daniel Woodrell’s novel paints an extremely accurate portrait of these white rural communities devastated by drug trafficking, there’s no question that Granik’s turned his story into something truly lifelike, not “Hollywood” lifelike.

Nothing in “Winter’s Bone” gets over-dramatized. Even the film’s most jarring events have a modesty about them. Granik prefers to let the characters and the gravity of their situations brood rather than add some extra suspense to get our blood pumping. Throw everything you know about poor white trash drug films out the window as there’s nothing even resembling shock and disgust tactics. We are simply meant to watch Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) struggle against a number of common and uncommon forces and observe the mostly cold demeanor of those around her whose lives have presumably been battered by drug abuse and peddling.

Jennifer Lawrence makes as big a splash as a 19-year-old possibly could here. She exudes Ree’s confident and responsible attitude. Although Ree possesses a definite naivety, it comes wrapped in a determination and willingness to accept the consequences. She’s in a desperate situation having to take care of her ill and incompetent mother and her two younger siblings, yet she remains self-assured.

The film follows Ree’s mission to find her father at risk of losing her house and being left homeless with her dependent family. Her father has been in and out of prison and missing the last few weeks. The sheriff informs her that if he doesn’t make his court date they’ll take the house to pay bond. The only way she knows to track him is to stick her nose into some dangerous places and she nearly loses it.

Yet “Winter’s Bone” does not uncover the horrors of crystal meth cooking in Central Missouri. The story focuses on Ree and causes us to wonder about those she seeks out in search of her father. We don’t see them engaging in drug use or behaving all that recklessly, but there’s an unspoken seriousness in all of them and consequently fear pervades the film.

Granik beautifully creates a barren, isolated, cold and uncomfortable mood as suggested by the title. The colors of the film are faded and bleak and the performances introspective. One might lament that John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, never gets to fully flex his dramatic chops despite the underlying tension that could justify an over-the-top scene, but his performance remains powerfully understated. Forced to blend together tones of anger, fear, responsibility and love, Hawkes stirs it up just right as the film slowly plods on.

Those who can appreciate a film that aims mainly to be a character-centered mood piece will find so many beautiful things in “Winter’s Bone” albeit things hard to digest. There’s also nothing completely tragic or gut-wrenching about the film and some might wait the entire time for the lid to burst and never be fully satisfied. Yet there’s no doubt that some wonderful talents assembled this troublesome film and created a mood that will somehow settle with you even if its plot points go forgotten.

4/5 Stars

Winter’s Bone
Directed by Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Daniel Woodrell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser

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