Thursday, November 11, 2010
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Shelley Waggener
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If The Hurt Locker and Precious conceived a movie offspring that grew up poor in the Ozarks, physically and emotionally abused by scary townsfolk against the backdrop of an unforgivingly bleak landscape at every turn for over an hour and a half, her name would be Winter's Bone. For better or worse, it's hard not to be reminded of those two films while watching this and even more difficult to decipher whether that's a compliment. While not as exciting as the former or as controversial as the latter, it deals with a timely, hot-button issue in the most depressing way possible, to the point that many viewers will probably be wanting to reach for razor blades when it concludes (if they can even make it that far). And to put icing on the cake, it's directed by a woman. Saying this project has "Oscar" written all over it would probably be an understatement.
Every year it seems there's a little seen, low budget independent film that cleans up on the festival circuit and critics everywhere begin championing it as their "cause." What starts as an underdog (or "slumdog" in some cases), can overnight turn into a film we're sick of hearing about. They often feature a nominated performance from a complete unknown, marking the arrival of a major new talent, whether their name is Carey Mulligan, Gaborey Sidibe or Jeremy Renner. This time we get one from a newcomer and another from one of the best character actors working today. Winter's Bone tells a story as old as the mountains where it takes place, offering nothing new or exciting, but benefits from not doing anything wrong and containing performances that are too powerful to write off, redeeming what's otherwise a depressing dirge to sit through. It's a well directed, beautifully shot acting clinic but nothing more. And that ends up being enough.
Burdened with the responsibility of taking care of her comatose mother and two younger siblings after her drug dealer father disappears, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) learns he's put up their Missouri Ozarks home as bail bond. With only a week until they're all kicked out, she sets out on a treacherous journey to find him that exposes her to the seedy underground of local crime and its dangerous townsfolk, chief among them her own downright scary uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). With each stop she's given just enough information to keep going but not enough to quit and the closer she gets to the truth the more she starts to realize some things may have been better left unknown, at least for her own safety and survival. From a narrative standpoint it's clear early on exactly where this is headed, and while there's a fair amount of tension, there's nothing particularly thrilling about how anything unfolds. It's more of a slow burn that builds momentum toward its conclusion. The movie consists almost entirely of Ree's terrifying confrontations with these criminals who could care less how bad she and her family have it because in their minds they have it just as bad, if not worse, and need to do whatever it takes to protect themselves. They hold all the cards, to the point that even the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is too afraid to help her, yet preoccupied about anyone finding out that fact.
Jennifer Lawrence is this movie. She's the driving force, appearing in every scene with her character going through hell in most of them. This is a challenging part on every level and no matter how ordinary the movie plays as a whole, there's absolutely nothing ordinary about this performance and she's earned all the high praise she's been getting for it. Lawrence's gives the film its only inkling of hope by playing Ree as a girl who just refuses to give up and perseveres despite every grueling obstacle put in front of her. While Lawrence acknowledges but effectively conceals Ree's fear, never hinting at even a trace of self-pity, which is essential to her whole story working and us rooting hard for her. She also has to help cover for some of writer/director Debra Granik's more questionable calls, like a third act plot development seemingly more suited to a low budget horror movie than a human drama. There won't be five female performances better than this all year and barring any shocking miscarriage of justice, Lawrence's nomination is a lock, regardless of how few people even see or know about the film.
More doubtful for awards consideration but no less deserving is John Hawkes as Teardrop and anyone who doesn't know Hawkes by name most definitely knows his face by sight ("Oh, it's THAT guy"). A gifted character actor for over twenty years, he's appeared in films like A Perfect Storm, Identity, Miami Vice and American Gangster as well as TV series' such as Deadwood and most recently Lost and Eastbound and Down. And that's only scratching the surface. Mostly known for playing meek, mild mannered minor characters, he's a chameleon in how he can fly under the radar and slide into any role but here he's the most unrecognizable he's ever been, transforming into this monster of a man ready to snap at any moment. Without speaking a word he conveys this quiet rage and menace that's terrifying, but when he does speak, it's even scarier. That this is the only person Ree can depend on (and he's a family member no less) says a lot a lot about the characters populating this story and how poverty has destroyed them. And when you slowly realize Teardrop wasn't exactly who you thought he was, you gain even more appreciation for what Hawkes brought. For me, there's nothing better in movies than seeing a under-valued, hard working supporting actor or actress break through after decades with the perfect part that finally gives them the opportunity to show everyone what they've got. This is that part for Hawkes and few actors could be more deserving.The film's most tensest scene (and Hawke's best) is a road side confrontation with Dillahunt's sheriff that could go anywhere but still ends in a way you wouldn't expect. Fittingly, Dillahunt also played a sheriff in No Country For Old Men, the film this is most comparable to, at least in terms of its depiction of a depressive American landscape. That took a while and a few viewings to really grow on me so at least there's that.
Winter's Bone won't ever be mistaken for a chase film or a mystery of any kind but it's tightly wound character piece driven by dark, gothic elements, as well as its haunting score and impressive cinematography . It's a noirish thriller that makes up for in atmosphere whatever's lacking in actual thrills. I wish I appreciated the film as much as the two performances that carried it, but it's doubtful that could have been possible given the high quality of work put forth by Lawrence and Hawkes. The impression they leave cuts deeper than a story we've seen many times before under a variety of different guises, no matter how timely or socially concious it is. Winter's Bone is technically skillful piece of filmmaking that wears its depressing realism on its sleeve, but I can't help but wonder if maybe we should start receiving awards for surviving viewing experiences this bleak and hopeless.