Some films are successful in capturing the moment by isolating themselves in those corners where the light seems dimmest. It is illumination by relief, and in these times of economic hardship and uncertainty, it is a trip deep into the backwoods of our country.
Winter’s Bone is such a film.
Debra Granik, adapting the novel by Daniel Woodrell, directs this piece of rural noir with economy and firmness of purpose. The film dutifully follows Ree, played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, as she navigates the bleak ruins of her home in the Ozarks and the darker corners of her extended family.
Ree has been left to act as caretaker for her young brother and sister and her mentally removed Mother. Her father, Jessup, is a locally renowned meth chef who has gone missing. The authorities arrive to inform Ree that Jessup, before failing to show at court, put the family home and property up as his bail bond. Ree’s only choice to save the home is to turn him up, dead or alive. Thrust into early adulthood by the choices of her parents and forced to reckon with her place in a web of familial crime, it is left to Ree to venture out into that web and ask questions of those who would kill to keep their actions silent.
Winter’s Bone is no mere thriller. But part of its success stems from its use of that form, creating an unrelenting state of visceral tension. The threat of violence is real and ever lurking. To watch Ree come face to face with this threat time and again is wrenching, all the way up to the dramatic conclusion.
Jennifer Lawrence does more than ground this film with her performance. She is its emotional and dramatic center, the face and heart of it all, giving her brief walks through and encounters with the desolated Missouri landscape and her kin an epic, Odyssean quality. She is a heroine that is neither victim nor avenger, but rather quietly steadfast in her refusal to accept defeat. In a world with almost no options, she exercises what little choice she can, willingly taking up the quest.
At its core, this is a film about choice, or the lack thereof, and among all the other self-serving choices made by those inhabiting this place, Ree stands apart in how she makes the most of what little she has been given.
Long time bit part player John Hawkes, carved and inked for this role, does a remarkable turn as Jessup’s brother and partner in crime, Teardrop. Teardrop is the manifesation of the ambiguity of this extended family, flashing in almost instant succession violence and dutiful concern, sincere and deep if not tender.
Winter’s Bone, while it lets in almost no light from the outside world, does not feel far removed. It is close, either to past or possible future. Strip away the warm economic embrace of the University, and the technologically assisted hyper-productivity of our surrounding fields, and you might see a return to such a place faster than you can say budget deficit and soil run off.
And yet behind the poverty, the crime, and the violence, there remains the last healthy bit of life, the family home and the woods on which the property sits. And Ree refuses to let it go, to destroy it, even as she looks in danger of being destroyed by her quest.
Winter’s Bone is playing Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at The Art.