Told with perfect pacing, driving needs, obstacles aplenty, goals pursued up to more obstacles, with a never-ending build of extraordinary tension, “Winter’s Bone” is a storyteller’s story. The film is riveting through to its totally satisfying and vaguely frightening end.
The acting is simple, straightforward, totally believable. Raw. The reality of the emotions, sights, sounds is exhausting. “Winter’s Bone” is unrelenting, it has no comfort zone, and much as we may try to insulate ourselves from the cold and the rough and the horrors of the world Ree Dolly inhabits, we cannot.
There are many films and stories with unlikable characters, but this one has some pretty despicable folk in it, including some that initially appear pretty rotten, but who then pale in comparison to the characters we meet as the story progresses. Seventy-odd years ago, seemingly similar characters were rather amusing in old black-and-white movies showing bootleg alcohol stills and caricatures of the impoverished people residing in them there hills -- shotgun-toting hillbillies scaring off revenuers. In “Winter’s Bone,” the same people are still in the same place, still insular, no longer caricatures, and now the stills are meth labs, and the enemy is not revenuers – it’s all outsiders and sometimes their own kin. The untamed country builds shadows in the foliage and around the next hill that hide deeper secrets than any city alleyway. And just to confuse the viewer, “Winter’s Bone” has a few, treasured moments of kindness, even sweetness. Its people are terrifying, and sometimes surprising.
This film works on many levels, first and foremost good storytelling. The teenaged protagonist, Ree Dolly, is met with a real problem of survival in the early minutes of the film. No messing around. She spends the next 80 or so minutes hitting brick walls built and supported by mean ungenerous, unkind people, most of whom are related to her. Each push for desperately needed information fails, but Ree keeps on because the stakes are so very high. She moves forward, trying to climb over and skirt obstacles, finding she cannot, then changes her goal to suit new facts. This is great storytelling.
Director Debra Granik does a sterling job with the excellent screenplay she wrote with Anne Rosselini based on a novel I’m afraid to read by Daniel Woodrell. The pace of the film is unrelenting, the story pushes, heroine (and that is a correct characterization here) Ree pushes back, the tension builds to an unbearable point more than once. This viewer’s shoulders and fists were tight, praying for release.
As Ree’s uncle, John Hawkes combines fierceness with gentleness, and his performance is, not surprisingly, pitch perfect. Also showing up with a reliable, quiet characterization is Garret Dillahunt as the Sheriff, a despicable and difficult job in a hostile region. Deep, dark work is done by a string of wonderful actors with great faces that will imprint in your mind’s eye – Dale Dickey, Casey MacLaren, Sheryl Lee, Ronnie Hall, Shelly Waggener. These people are so good you’d think they just live out there in the hills and aren’t actors at all.
Most amazing of all these fine, fine actors is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly. In the film's opening shots, I looked at her and saw a slave to her family. She is tough as nails and soft as a baby blanket; she is big sister, teacher, mother, and finally father. Ree is insightful and courageous, resilient and smart enough to be frightened of her own relations while doing her best not to show it. Ms. Lawrence’s performance is the spine of the film – and all without dazzling special effects. The girl is amazing.
There’s a chance I won’t watch this film again, in the way I’ll never re-read Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” which gave me waking nightmares. The actions and the rules of these present-day characters in the Ozarks are more terrifying than any zombie movie could ever be.
“Winter’s Bone” tells a fine nerve-wracking story, a terrifying tale of a community with rules known to all, where transgressors will be held to account. Where the toddlers are taught to shoot, skin, and stew a squirrel. Where kindness and decency are more readily punished than crime. These people are tired out by the time they’re ten.
When we are worn to the bone, we are revealed. “Winter’s Bone” casts light on all sides of the human animal, and reveals the dark in all of us.
Now that’s a great movie.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, still listening to the film's fine score.