Thursday, June 13, 2024

“WINTER’S BONE”

THE STORY – Faced with an unresponsive mother and a criminal father, Ozark teenager Ree Dolly does what she can to manage the household and take care of her two younger siblings. Informed by the sheriff that their father put their home up for bond and then disappeared, Ree sets out on a dangerous quest to find him. Her entire family’s fate now in her hands, Ree challenges her outlaw kin’s code of silence and risks her life to learn her father’s fate.

THE CAST – Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee & Tate Taylor

THE TEAM – Debra Granik (Director/Writer) & Anne Rosellini (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes


Set in the murky Ozark Mountains of Missouri, “Winter’s Bone” tells a bleak but hopeful tale of survival. 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mother is ill and whose father is unaccounted for, cares for her two younger siblings. She teaches them the basic skills of survival and encourages them never to ask for what ought to be offered. With the help of neighbors, she has enough food on the table, along with a roof over her head. But one day, the local sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) arrives with troubling news that throws Ree off her demanding but steady routine and puts her family in an especially desperate situation. Ree’s father, Jessup, is due for an upcoming court hearing but hasn’t been seen for some time. Therefore, if he continues to fail to show, Ree and her family will lose the house as it was put up for his bail bond. Now facing inevitable homelessness, Ree’s only option is to locate her father, and without the support of her tight-lipped community, she takes matters into her own hands. The bare-bones story of “Winter’s Bone” resembles that of a parable. Ree heroically sets off into the woods and encounters characters who give her some form of enlightenment, which leads to a final reveal that brings closure. Under measured and subdued direction by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” submerges its audience into a wintry world with glimmers of hope and a persistence to survive harsh circumstances.

Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name, co-writers Granik and Anne Rosellini approach the material with tremendous attention to atmosphere and tone. From the deserted terrains and isolated houses to the lonely characters and the obscurity of their social interactions. The film establishes a memorable sense of place and captures locations that feel completely untouched, as though lived-in by the characters we meet. The hand-held camera beholds how the characters use their spaces and which environments they gravitate towards. With impactful specificity and minimalism, each location helps to define its inhabitants.

Granik’s direction smartly conveys how closely people and places can be intertwined. Whether it’s the warmth of Ree’s family home in the middle of the cold exterior, the ominous seclusion of the shadowy barn where Ree’s older relatives confront her, or the neighbors’ general intrusion of Ree’s space, which reinforces how much the community values secrecy. Granik brings an incredibly patient and nurturing eye that lets situations unfold in the time needed to build emotion. One of the most riveting examples occurs shortly after the violent barn confrontation. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) intervenes, pulls her to safety, and drives her away from the lion’s den. Shortly after, the local sheriff (Dillahunt) pulls him over on the highway, and the two have an intense exchange. Hawkes’s unflinching, scary demeanor as he stares down the sheriff through the side mirror, gun in hand, is chilling to the bone. Coupled with the moody lighting and minimal sound, the scene masterfully builds tension. The overall sound and color of “Winter’s Bone” also add to the film’s atmosphere. With a grey palette and very selective use of music, the haunting silence of the story sinks in even deeper.

Granik and Rosellini’s Oscar-nominated screenplay marks a sensitive exploration of surviving on the minimum, living “close to the bone.” The threat of Ree losing her sense of place, having already lost a big part of her adolescence by having to grow up quickly, is an immediate gut punch. Bleak as her circumstances are, she exudes a fierce protectiveness over what is hers and an unwavering will to uncover the truths so blatantly hidden from her. Her interactions with family members throughout the film, many of which lean hostile, shed light on the powerful recurring themes of honor and family ties. What will it take for Ree’s relatives to help her, and why do they hesitate in the first place? The journey of finding her father trespasses on several open wounds that take time for many to heal.

The writing has an effectively simple structure, which allows the actors to drive home the emotions and fill in the moments of silence. Everything from impending doom to moments of relief can be felt deeply in the performances, mainly by the film’s tremendous lead. As the headstrong Ree holding her family and home together, Jennifer Lawrence gives a virtuoso star-making performance. At such a young age, her work transcends beyond her years and conveys a level of maturity that fits the character’s circumstances. Lawrence also expertly shows glimmers of Ree’s lost adolescence, specifically early on in the film when she roams the halls of her school and intently observes her classmates’ various extracurricular activities. Revisiting her performance over a decade later, one quickly recognizes not just the makings of a movie star but the seasoned mix of vulnerability and tenacity that would continue to shine throughout her career. Ree’s determination is just as palpable as the flickers of worry and fear in her eyes. Lawrence perfects the character’s strong will without forgetting her innocence. This balance can be felt powerfully in scenes such as Ree pleading with her mother for help (“Mom, look at me”) and in the film’s final act when Ree is taken out to the lake by the older women of the community. These are two of the most stunning pieces of acting in any year, and her work did not go unnoticed. “Winter’s Bone” earned Lawrence massive critical acclaim and her first Oscar nomination at age 20, which led to a YA franchise role that would change her life.

Another significant element of Lawrence’s performance is her generosity with the other actors. She is so present in their interactions, which helps to create a community dipped in realism. As Ree’s uncle Teardrop, veteran actor John Hawkes earned his first Oscar nomination, deservingly so. When first approached to help find Jessup, Teardrop immediately draws a line and dares everyone to cross it. Hawkes’s first scene is a startling depiction of the character’s capacity for violence (“I said shut up already once with my mouth”) and unshakable underlying sorrow from potentially losing his only brother. Hawkes builds tremendously on his character’s scary first impression and reveals a greater capacity for consolation. Many of the other supporting characters in this film also stand out. Dale Dickey’s matriarch, Merab, has a character similar to Teardrop in that she is also introduced to Ree as an intimidating community member. But that intimidation comes from a place where Merab knows how coldly their community operates and is consumed by the bitterness of it all. With just a few key scenes, Dickey makes an everlasting mark and creates a lived-in character whose heart is not yet lost.

What makes “Winter’s Bone” a revelation is not necessarily the story itself but the tonal and atmospheric understanding of this world that the cast and crew bring. The film tells a melancholy tale about the stories of honor people pass around in a rural community. That sense of knitted togetherness can be felt deeply, however flawed the characters are. In one of Ree’s final lines of dialogue, she tells her younger siblings, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back; I ain’t going anywhere.” The dark closure and relief she gets are emotionally impactful because of all the seeds planted patiently throughout the film to reach that point. Granik brings an unwavering focus to let the mood of a scene take you places and ultimately allows the actors to be present in the moment. Led by a wondrous Jennifer Lawrence in her best performance to date, “Winter’s Bone” is a stirring contemporary noir that values the heroism of standing one’s ground and seeking equity for the place and livelihood that is theirs.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Jennifer Lawrence's star-making performance and Debra Granik's patient direction make the film an indie revelation.

THE BAD - Some viewers might find the bare-bones screenplay and pacing too slow-moving.

THE OSCARS - Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor & Best Adapted Screenplay (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Jennifer Lawrence's star-making performance and Debra Granik's patient direction make the film an indie revelation.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some viewers might find the bare-bones screenplay and pacing too slow-moving.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actress/">Best Actress</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-adapted-screenplay/">Best Adapted Screenplay</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"WINTER'S BONE"