I’m going to come one Black Swan short of seeing all of the ten Best Picture nominees before Sunday’s Academy Awards. I just scratched #9 off the list by watching writer-director Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone on DVD.
This is certainly the bleakest film of the bunch. Set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, Winter’s Bone tells the tale of Ree Dolly, a tough 17-year-old girl raising her younger brother and sister on her own. Her meth-cooking father, Jessup, has left and her mother is an empty shell who sits in a chair and takes medication that does nothing to improve her nearly catatonic state.
One day “the law” shows up to inform Ree that her father has jumped bail after putting the family house up as collateral. If Jessup doesn’t show up for his hearing, their land will be taken away. So Ree sets out on a quest to find her father and save her family. In her way stands a wider circle of family — the hard, mean, drug-running inhabitants of the woods around her run-down farm.
I knew nothing about the Ozarks before seeing this film, and I’m grateful to Granik for painting such a gritty, realistic portrait. I now know never to travel within a thousand miles of the place. Honestly, if I had the choice of being Aron Ralston, pinned beneath a boulder in 127 Hours, or Ree Dolly, skinning squirrel and pissing off the scariest cast of backwoods hicks this side of Deliverance, I’d opt for the boulder.
But you have to admire Ree. Portrayed with stubborn grace by Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, she’s a tough but kind-hearted soul trapped between her desire to break free from her suffocating surroundings and her need to stay put and care for her siblings. In one heartbreaking scene, she talks to an Army recruiter about her wish to bring the kids with her should she enter basic training and he gently informs her that given her situation, her only real choice is to remain at home.
In order to protect that home she must figure out what happened to her father, even as it becomes clear that the path to the truth runs through the most dangerous places imaginable. Watching Ree approach trailers and barns not knowing who she’ll find at the other end of each door is harrowing.
Her one ally, if you can call him that, is her uncle Teardrop (played splendidly by John Hawkes, also Oscar nominated). Teardrop looks like a haunted skeleton and he strikes fear into even the bad guys. He’s a man you want on your side, even though you’ll constantly worry about what he’ll do while he’s there.
Winter’s Bone is an easy film to admire but a tough one to love. The staging and performances are so authentic that at times it feels like a documentary. Granik used locals as extras and in small roles and you can see the experience in their eyes. This place is so alien and insular it may as well be another planet, and the bleakness of the surroundings started to weigh on me after awhile.
Through all that gloom, Ree shines. She’s a reluctant warrior, fiercely brave even when she’s frightened to death. She deserves so much better than this, but the film isn’t interested in easy answers. The ultimate tragedy is that, even if she fulfills her mission and saves her family’s home, she’s still going to have to live there.
What an excellent review, you summed it up beautifully. I’m still glad I saw it even though it was so bleak.