Winter’s Bone is a thriller more intense and occasionally, flat out terrifying, than anything the major studios had to offer in 2010. Debra Granik’s movie is more than that, though – with 17 year-old Ree Dolly, (Jennifer Lawrence) Winter’s Bone has an unforgettable heroine, more coarse and unrefined than Atticus Finch, but every bit as noble and implacable. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is pitch perfect throughout and even though she’s a long shot for the Oscar, damn, I hope she gets it.
The Dolly family has a roof over their heads, food and firewood, and that’s about it. Ree’s the one working a minor miracle keeping what’s left of her family afloat. Her father Jessup was a local legend thanks to his meth-cooking expertise, but Jessup’s been missing for some time. Ree’s mother is physically present, but whether from sampling Jessup’s merchandise or the travails of having him as a husband, there’s nothing much left of her but a shell, her mind having taken a powder long before Jessup left. That leaves Ree to raise her two young siblings and support the family. Still, she’s getting by, even if it’s just by a whisker.
Everything changes after the sheriff comes calling. Jessup has an upcoming court date and he put the Dolly’s house up as collateral when he posted bail. If he’s a no-show, that’s all she wrote for Ree and her family. There’s no place to fall back to; nobody to take them in. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Ree calmly tells the sheriff she’ll find her father. That’s that – there’s no other option open.
Most adults wouldn’t have the steel to walk where Ree walks. As far as the locals are concerned, most of whom are related to Ree, it’s a shame and all about the house, but you don’t ask questions about things that don’t concern you. Bad enough the sheriff’s come around – that’s far too much attention than anybody’s comfortable with, even if he’s got nothing on any of them. Ree’s a potential threat and somehow, she’s got to be dealt with.
Grannik’s movie could’ve turned all of these people into caricatures. A lesser movie would’ve been condescending or worse, treated these characters as objects of pity. Grannik treats even the most evil of them as human beings. They’re smart, they’ve got a code of honor that’d put the Mafia to shame and if you make the mistake of underestimating them, it’s likely to be your last.
Ree’s the one who stands as an example of the light that can shine in that pitch darkness. She’s scared, she knows she’s in over her head and that she’s more than a little likely to get killed. Lawrence finds the right tone for all of it, eschewing dramatic gestures for steady resolve and a warmth that radiates even through the film’s most oppressive scenes. John Hawkes is every bit as good as Ree’s Uncle Teardrop, a man perpetually strung out on his own product and just as corrupt as the rest of the cookers and dealers. Still, at one pivotal moment he does the right thing for the right reason even though it might be fatal. Hawkes deals with all of Teardrop’s contradictions perfectly, creating a thoroughly evil man who still might have a glimmer of hope for redemption.
If Winter’s Bone never opened in your neck of the woods, latch onto it now. This isn’t indie cinema pretention – it’s suspenseful, scary, exciting and ultimately, walking alongside Ree on her journey through the Nine Circles is ultimately uplifting. No matter what obstacle’s in front of her, no matter what disadvantages she’s saddled with, she faces her worst fears and moves right on forward. In Lawrence’s hands, Ree becomes an unforgettable heroine. Winter’s Bone is a movie that marks Grannik as one of the greats.
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