A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2010

Rank:  #9


2010, R, 99 mins.


Ree: Jennifer Lawrence / Teardrop: John Hawkes / Little Arthur: Kevin Breznahan / Merab: Dale Dickey / Sheriff Baskin: Garret Dillahunt / April: Sheryl Lee

Directed by Debra Granik / Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell.

The great filmgoing experiences, I have often conceded, have been the ones that are the most transportative.  They sort of effortlessly take viewers to another time and another place and do so with such a matchless authenticity and consideration to detail.   They maintain an out-of-body allure, making viewers feel less like they are in the confines of a movie theatre and more like they are vicariously living through the film with its characters…almost like an eavesdropping and neutral eyewitness to the events unfolding.   

Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE is one of those rare kinds of out-of-body films that thoroughly whisks audiences away into its bleak, evocative, and depressingly natural environments, which is complimented by a series of outstanding lead performances that are as equally genuine.  The film takes place in a rough, dirty, dilapidated, and thoroughly foreboding corner of Southern Missouri in what I think is contemporary times, but the setting and period could have easily been the Great Depression.  All forms of modern touches seem vacant here – all we have is a numbing sense of putrefied world within a larger one that seems to have progressed beyond it.  At the epicenter of this hopeless microcosm is a young and unassuming girl that is a small scale hero not so much for the singular abilities she has above others, but more or less because time and circumstance have given her no other alternatives.  It’s sink or swim for this girl, and only a steadfast resilience and a drive to go on keeps her and her loved ones alive. 

WINTER’S BONE – adapted by Granik from a 2006 Diane Woodrell novel of the same name – is a spare, economical, but intrinsically intoxicating portrait of this young woman and her struggles, which may at first seem trivial, but have larger ramifications as the film progresses.  She is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a breakout performance in there ever was one, more on her later), a girl of 17-years that, despite her tender age, faces harsh responsibilities and conducts herself like a woman twice as old.  She has a mother, but she is so catatonic that Ree all but has to serve as her caregiver.  Ree also has a younger brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) that are essentially her children to look after, seeing as her mother is all but mentally absent.  Ree’s home seems like it was blasted back into the 19th Century: no obvious present-day trappings seem to occupy her very modest dwelling: phones seem absent, ditto for a TV and car, and the home itself is heated by a wood burning stove to shield the family from the cruel elements.  Ree gets by with the help of neighbors and friends, but beyond that she and her family are beyond destitute and without much hope.  They even are forced to hunt, kill, skin, and eat squirrels for sustenance. 

To make matters ever worse for Ree is the enigmatic shadow of her father, Jessup, that looms over her the household and family she is desperately trying to maintain.  Her father is no saint – he was jailed for cooking crystal meth – but now he appears to be missing.  Unfortunately for Ree, Jessup used the family house as collateral to post bail before he disappeared, and now it appears very likely that if either the police or bounty hunters are not able to locate him, then Ree’s last and only refuse from the tortuous world she lives in will be taken away from her.  Much as she has done throughout her life, Ree makes sacrifices for the betterment of those around her without a care in the world for her own well being.  She even puts her dreams of joining the army on hold so that she can not only look after her penniless siblings and mother, but also so that she can begin a trek to locate her criminal father before her very home is taken away.



Make no mistake about it, Ree is an utterly fearless, selfless, and determined kid that deals with adult problems in ways that even some adults would not be capable of handling.  She takes herself away from her pseudo-paternal responsibilities at home in order to take a journey to find the necessary clues to her father’s real whereabouts…or at the very least find where his dead body may be, the latter which seems like a very likely possibility considering Jessup’s run-ins with the wrong kind of people.  Even though Ree takes to her personal mission with a steely-eyed will and unwavering commitment, roadblocks beset her at every turn.  Very few people in the area that know Jessup are willing at all to talk about his possible whereabouts and even the man’s own brother, Teardrop (a magnificent John Hawkes) refuses to spill the beans.  Yet, even if he knew where Ree’s ol’ man was he warns her of the dangers of poking her head where she shouldn't.  After Ree does go through one hellish ordeal and encounters one dangerously unstable person after another, the film culminates in a tension filled climax where the poor child must deal with her father’s current state and some positively grisly choices to save her family and her home. 

Few films totally get under our skin like WINTER’S BONE: this is a low-financed indie drama where its environments have a remarkably tactile quality that many large-scale Hollywood productions can muster.  Optimism seems like a fruitless prospect for the lives of Ree and the ones she cares about, and it's crucial that Granik never once – at any waking moment of the film – pulls any punches for showing Ree’s misfortunes and the world she occupies for what it is: dreary, drab, and disturbingly hostile.  The film is made with a subtlety, but rarely does it lack a riveting sense of horrifying despondency.  I have seen post-apocalyptic sci-fi films with environments that seem more outwardly hospitable and cheery than those in WINTER’S BONE, and the film does a virtuoso job of immediately immersing you in its nightmarish surroundings.  Cinematographer Michael McDonough uses his lens as a portal into this futile world and the way that he and Granik use crumbling real world exteriors gives the film its sense of urgency and verisimilitude. 

Then there are the rich performances, which are a mish-mash of film actors and real-life locales, but you’d never notice this, which is why WINTER’S BONE never seems to hit a false note when it comes to its character dynamics.  The film, though, is to be savored and championed for the presence of 19-year-old newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who transforms her own attractive, baby-faced innocence into a mesmerizingly sturdy, rugged, world weary, and courageous heroine.  Not only does she fluently capture the type of casual and sparsely monotone inflections of her local people, but she also manages to evoke a young girl that is forced – oftentimes beyond her desires – to deal with traumatizing predicaments without letting her guard down.  She is still just as vulnerable and impressionable as any youthful teen, but deep inside Ree lurks a person that uses her own faith, fierce resolve, and unbounded bravery to see her through any crisis.  This is an extraordinary character rendered by an equally extraordinary new talent:  Academy voters, take heed. 

WINTER’S BONE marks the third feature film from the Massachusetts’s born Granik and it was a double prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  There is no doubt that many filmgoers will be instantly turned off by the unlimited sense of human depression that impregnates the film (even when the film culminates with an ending that lacks comfy closure, you still gain an impression that all is still not well for its characters), but WINTER’S BONE should not be considered a depressive experience to sit through.  The film is ultimately uplifting and inspirational for how it shows one impoverished and deeply troubled girl with what seems like the world against her deal her despair and intense hardships by overcoming them merely so that her family can just continue to function.  It’s a spellbinding and wondrously atmospheric human drama told with modest and unflashy showmanship, which allows for WINTER’S BONE to become such a transcending, out-of-body film to sit through.  It’s one of 2010’s most accomplished and memorable works.   

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