(Z To A is an ongoing series. Having lost interest in cinema over the past few years I am attempting to get it back. The plan? Re-watching and reviewing my DVD collection in reverse chronological order. Funny, I know, but this may reveal recurring themes or at least explain why I love certain films and have decided to own them.)
Plot Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to track down her father, who put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails, Ree and her family will be turned out into the Ozark woods. Challenging her outlaw kin’s code of silence and risking her life, Ree hacks through the lies, evasions and threats offered up by her relatives and begins to piece together the truth.
– From Winter’s Bone official site
Winter’s Bone is the latest acquisition for my DVD collection. Why is that? Well, for one thing this film features one of the strongest young women I’ve seen onscreen in at least ten years. In fact, I can’t think of any fictional teenage girl that’s quite like Ree. Raising her two younger siblings (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) and caring for her nearly catatonic mother (Valerie Richards), Ree lives in a dilapidated house in the woods. She doesn’t go to school, a choice that seems to be solidly hers but born out of desperate necessity. Instead she cooks, tends house and chops firewood- the provider and protector of her family.
What Ree sets out to do, as well as what happens to her, takes on an gothic, fable-like quality that has been described as fairytale noir. However, it is also true to life, bringing to mind Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008). The film is beautifully shot, deftly paced and expertly acted. This not only refers to Lawrence, but John Hawkes as Ree’s meth-addicted Uncle Teardrop. I was blown away by Hawkes’ performance in this, having only seen him play “nice guys,” namely gentle souls and pushovers.
Here he is almost unrecognizable. In his first scene with Lawrence, Hawkes infuses it with so much dread he is like a coiled snake. When he sprang it scared the shit out of me. And that’s just during the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
From there the tension doesn’t let up, and Winter’s Bone has absolutely no interest in taking its viewers into familiar territory (literally). It takes place in a cloistered world with its own code of conduct and punishment. The violence is restrained but shocking, with more emphasis on each character’s reaction. And the characters, even when briefly sketched, are important. Writer-director Debra Granik captures each of them with a stark clarity. They are often ruled by fear and unflinchingly human. Even the villains get their say.
Despite this Lawrence’s Ree remains the still point of the film’s universe. Her resilience, strength and singularity of purpose propel the story. She refuses to let intimidation or overwhelming odds discourage her. Nevertheless she prepares herself and her siblings for the worst with efficiency and tenderness. She has her moments of vulnerability. Lawrence plays this effortlessly, which is no easy task.
And, surprisingly, Hawkes’s Teardrop has endeared himself to me more and more during my last viewing. His departure from the story is one of the saddest I’ve seen in recent memory. I didn’t want him to go. Perhaps this isn’t only a testament to Hawkes’ performance but the film as a whole. It may be a rough ride, but compassion isn’t out of the question.
(For further understanding of the film, I recommend the source material of the film, Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name. It provides more of Ree’s backstory and the Dolly family’s history, as well as several unexpected differences from the film.)