Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review - Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone is an unusual thriller and it features a most unusual heroine. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year-old living in a remote Ozark community who is struggling to hold what's left of her family together. Her father is absent, her mother is catatonic, and it's left to Ree to raise and care for her two younger siblings. Money is tight and food is scarce, so Ree takes it upon herself to teach the two children how to shoot and kill for their dinner, skills they'll need in order to survive. Her brother balks when Ree tells him to pull the skin off a squirrel, but she is firm with him, saying, "Sonny, there's a bunch of stuff that you're gonna have to get over being scared of." Later, Ree's own courage will be tested to the limit.

Debra Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini adapted Winter's Bone from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, and while I'm unfamiliar with that writer, Granik's film evoked for me the work of another author, Cormac McCarthy. It has a beautiful feel for the bleak and often violent landscape its characters inhabit; the dialogue is sharp and spare but often lyrical; and it sends its lead character out on a grimly compelling quest that takes on mythic quality. Ree's odyssey begins when the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father has skipped bail and unless he shows up for his court date, she and her family will lose their home and their land, which her no-good dad signed over as his bond. Ree resolves to find him within the week – she has no other choice – but finding him will involve digging into a part of the community that many dangerous people want to remain hidden.

The air of suspicion that pervades Winter's Bone gives it an extraordinarily unsettling atmosphere. There are few among Ree's neighbours and extended family that she can truly trust, and as she strides from one ramshackle home to the next, those who worked alongside her father cooking meth start getting nervous. Ree is intimidated and threatened (asking questions is a good way to end up "et by hogs, or wishing you were" she is told), and she is subjected at one point to an act of violence that is shocking in its abrupt brutality. She refuses to back down, though, and her determination to drive deeper into the darkness ahead of her makes Winter's Bone both nerve-wracking and utterly riveting.

Granik has a superb sense of pacing and Winter's Bone moves at exactly the speed it needs to. The director gives us time to take in the environment in which the story is taking place, with key details being picked out by Michael McDonough's outstanding cinematography, but when she needs to ratchet up the tension, she does so expertly. A stand-off viewed in a rear-view mirror and a chase through cattle market provide jolts of excitement, while Ree's climactic, gruelling night-time walk towards an unknown fate has a nightmarish quality. Winter's Bone is the kind of thriller that sneaks up on its audience; sucking them deep into the plot before they have even realised that there's a tightly wound narrative unfolding. Granik and Roselli's screenplay is brilliantly structured and succeeds in driving the story forward while also addressing a series of complex themes (the nature of blood ties; the way generations become trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty; the resilience of the human spirit in extreme circumstances) as well as developing a handful of strikingly memorable characters.

One particularly unforgettable figure is Merab, the wife of drug kingpin Thump, who is portrayed with a ferocious intensity by Dale Dickey, while John Hawkes also turns in a spectacular display, finding unexpected humanity and pain in the role of Ree's initially threatening uncle. Ultimately, however, this is Jennifer Lawrence's film. As Ree, Lawrence gives a commanding lead performance, bringing a quiet determination and no-nonsense forthrightness to every action and yet ensuring that we see enough of her fear and vulnerability to care about her as she marches ever deeper into the Ozark underworld. Ree is an ordinary teenager who has to become a hero for her family and who has to take on her whole community, and the brilliance of Lawrence's performance – and Granik's film as a whole – is that we completely believe in the transition. "I ain't going anywhere," Ree says as she comforts her brother and sister, and you know she means it.