Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Release Review: Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

Few films this year are as bleak, unflinching and gritty in character and theme, yet so subtly executed as Debra Granik's excellent thriller, Winter's Bone. Also written by Granik as an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel, the film garnered the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The performances are exceptional, especially the 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, and John Hawkes as her 'Uncle' Teardrop.
The film really asks you to imagine just how poor these communities are, and how the folk are seemingly ashamed of their close relations to one another. Driven to any means necessary to survive, most have been transformed into drug manufacturers and criminals as a result of their hardship. Ree's father Jessup, whose arrest for Crystal Meth manufacturing and distribution all but destroyed the sanity of her mother, who is now an invalid, and has resulted in likely significant jail time. The films early shots establish the beautiful family dynamic between the siblings, as 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is the sole responsible guardian of her younger brother and sister, who attempt to find enjoyment in small pleasures around the property like jumping on their trampoline, and skateboarding over the rocky earth. It also establishes the cold, bleak setting where this tale will be set. As an impoverished Ozark family, the Dolly's rely on small rations and friendly donations from their neighbors when they are in dire need. Ree must also look after her mother, who is ill, as well as cook for her siblings and tend to and maintain the property. One morning Ree is visited by the local sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) and informed that the ownership of the house would be turned over to the State unless their fugitive father Jessup made an appearance at his upcoming scheduled court hearing. Having been released from custody due to his placement of the family's house and land as the bond, Ree and her family will lose possession of the property unless he can be found. Estranged from him for years and uncertain of his whereabouts, she starts out on a dangerous quest to find her father. The courageous Ree is forced to stand up to Jessup's former partners and the most unsavory members of the local criminal network, who refuse to reveal any knowledge of his whereabouts and threaten her life if she continues to delve any deeper.

While the story's confinement is unsettling, we find ourselves trapped in this unfortunate existence. At first it seems very episodic, as Ree visits a series of locals one after another in search of her father, but we conclude that these are frightening emotional obstacles to cross. Firstly she visits her friend who later takes care of her, asking to borrow her husbands car. She then visits Jessup's gruff and fearful brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), who strongly encourages her to refrain from asking the wrong questions. But, determined and courageous, she treks by foot through the treacherous surroundings and continues to question some of the other locals, notably a disillusioned drug fiend and former business partner of Jessup and the property of an aging Godfather-like figure who refuses to talk with Ree. She is forced off his property by an aggressive and threatening woman. As Ree refuses to back down and delves deeper, these figures emerge again and again, ultimately beating her and debating whether to silence her. Teardrop, who shows his loyalty to his family (Ree being his closest relative), intervenes and rescues Ree from the custody of the other locals, who have her surrounded in a barn.

She is seriously injured and emotionally drained after her ordeals with these unsavory individuals. The women in this film are all strong-willed and aggressive characters, and it is interesting that one of the classes in Ree's school was child-care where the girls were learning how to nurse children. In this impoverished region, most of the women would be required to fend for themselves; be able to wield an axe or hunt game, and also care for a child. In a desperate attempt to gather some income when hope of finding her father is all but lost, Ree volunteers for the army so that she will be entitled to the $40,000 for enlisting. It is sad that the only alternative to the young woman's desperate existence is military service. In one of many great sequences throughout, the officer conducting the enlistment interview encourages her to go home and look after her siblings, declaring that it would take more courage and be more rewarding than serving her country just for the money.

There is often an overwhelming tension to almost every sequence, especially in Ree's visit to the rodeo stables, the confrontation between Teardrop and the sheriff, and Ree's moonlit experience out on the water. Even the camerawork is gritty; consistently curious and patient and often featuring unstable hand held. The icy, wintry, soulless location became a character in itself, and was just as much of an obstacle to Ree as her sadistic relatives. The chemistry between all of the actors was beautiful, especially between Ree and her siblings, which really seemed to be more than acting. Actually most of the film seems too real to be fiction. The conclusion is subtle but unforgettable, delivered without fuss or the overwhelming drama common to Hollywood films. Featuring exceptional performances, that will likely reward Jennifer Lawrence with a lead actress nomination, and John Hawkes with a supporting one, Winter's Bone is a powerful, moving and inspirational tale very well told.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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