Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
I watched Winter’s Bone almost five months ago as I write the first words of this review. I have been trying to come up with something to say about it that does not somehow include far too many uses of the term “wow”. I really haven’t been doing a good job of it, so I just gave up trying. (Amusingly, it has now been another two months between the time I wrote those first three sentences and the time I am writing this fourth; I guess I hadn’t stopped trying hard enough.) This is a movie of uncommon power and grace about people and situations who are uncommonly powerless and graceless, and that takes some doing indeed. Much of this, of course, is down to perfect casting; the film lists Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee as the casting directors in the credits, but as with Granik’s previous film, Down to the Bone, I suspect she had a firmer hand in the casting than many directors do. In Down to the Bone, Granik chose as her female lead a young character actress who’d done mostly television work up to that point by the name of Vera Farmiga. The rest is history. Now, take that same story, replace the name of the film with Winter’s Bone and the name of the actress with Jennifer Lawrence. Vera Farmiga has gone on to be a respected critical darling, and deservedly so; she makes every movie she is in better than it would otherwise be. Jennifer Lawrence has gone on to be a megastar in (as I write this) just three short years; she worked for scale ($3,000 a week) on Winter’s Bone, and landed a cool ten million for Mockingjay. She’s worth it, and every frame of film containing her in Winter’s Bone attests to this.
Plot: Ree (Lawrence) is a teenager in the rural Ozarks whose family has long been fractured; her father Jessup, a meth dealer, went missing a while back. Her mother is mentally challenged, which leaves Ree the putative head of the household, teaching her younger siblings survival skills and keeping what’s left of the family together. They would have gone on like this indefinitely, most like, had not the county sheriff turned up on the family’s doorstep one morning saying Jessup is due in court in a week’s time. If he doesn’t turn up, the family will lose their house, which Jessup put up as collateral last time he got out on bail. And thus, with the reluctant help of Jessup’s slightly less dissolute brother Teardrop (Identity‘s John Hawkes), Ree embarks on a frustrating, and often dangerous, quest to determine the whereabouts of her father.
The plot is good, the movie is perfectly-paced, and the closer that climax gets the more you know where this is going, but as with the best movies of this stripe, Granik teases you with the idea that “nope, we’re not gonna go there, and in the process we will save your sanity, your hope for the human race, and your kindness towards others.” Then she puts the goldfish bowl over your head and shatters it with a mallet, but that’s all beside the point. So are the award-caliber performances turned in by any number of other actors in this movie, including Hawkes, Shelley Waggener (Punch-Drunk Love), Ronnie Hall (in his film debut), and Tate Taylor, best known these days as a director (The Help). All of those things are good, but all of them line up as a showcase for the fearsome acting talents of Jennifer Lawrence. Make no mistake: this movie is all about Ree, and Lawrence’s performance never lets you forget that. Had it simply been her doing a reading of the character on a bare stage, with someone else feeding all the other characters’ lines, I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been just as powerful. She’s that good here. Her choice of projects since hasn’t been constantly good (viz. The House at the End of the Street), but, like Vera Farmiga, Jennifer Lawrence makes everything she appears in better than it would otherwise be. When she has a very good movie behind her, well, the result is something like Winter’s Bone. This is one for the ages. ****