Winter’s Bone (2010) dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener
By Alan Bacchus
There’s some really smart storytelling going on in Winter’s Bone. At once, it’s a refreshing thriller/neo-noir anchored in character, featuring actors and locations few of us have seen before. Yet, writer/director Debra Granik builds up her textured film on the foundation of familiar Western genre tropes, resulting in a comforting genre-based familiarity but with all indie production credibility in tact.
The set up has the simplicity of a Budd Boetticher western, that is, the 1950’s Western auteur known for his minimalist collaborations with Randolph Scott. In the sparse, cold and monumentally depressing rural Ozarks, 17 year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is given some awful news. Her father, a lifetime criminal recently arrested for a drug deal, has put up his house as collateral for his bond. This means if Dad doesn’t show up at court Ree and her invalid mother and two child siblings lose their home.
In storytelling terms these are the ‘stakes’ - the characters, environment, the tone and the genre are immediately apparent to us thus jump starting this film. We get this information in a matter of minutes, a common mistake made by inexperienced filmmakers who love to ease audience into their films and consequently boring them to shit. In Winter’s Bone, there’s a mature old Hollywood feeling to this set up.
Ree’s journey doesn’t take her far geographically, but mentally and physically her internal strength is pushed to limits. In order to find her father she immediately seeks out his family, specifically her brother, another nefarious criminal connected deep into the hillbilly meth crime network. As Ree’s Uncle, Teardrop, John Hawkes, the veteran character actor, deliver’s the film’s most iconic performance, with an arc which swings from isolated belligerent loner to heroic champion of his family.
Evil characters seems to lurk in virtually every corner of the Ree’s town, most of whom are directly related to her. Of course, this is also the world of Deliverance, but dramatized and realized with a more reverent tone than the kitchy treatment of Boorman's inbred hillbillies.
When it’s rumoured her father has been killed by his rival drug dealers, suddenly Ree finds herself confronting and negotiating with her enemies to save the lives of her family. In the final act, Ree is offered a means of keeping her house with the completion of one task, which makes for a gruelling climax, but one which leaves the audience a feeling of satisfying closure and a strange feeling of optimism, thus freeing itself from the trap of cinematic cynicism which plagues this modern neo-noir or revisionist westerns.