Winter’s Bone (US 2010)

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly (Photo: Sebastian Mlynarski)

This year’s ‘must see’ American Independent is surely Winter’s Bone, which I found to be every bit as good as the enthusiastic reviews in most of the press and across the internet. However, I went into the screening remembering a discussion on BBC2’s The Review Show in which Pat Kane was the only dissenting voice arguing that the film was some kind of poverty porn and quite unrealistic (because there was no mention of welfare). I usually go with Kane (a hardline Scots socialist) but this time I think he had the wrong take on the film.

For anyone who has missed the hype, Winter’s Bone is an adaptation of a novel by Daniel Woodrell set in a distinctive region in South-West Missouri, part of the Ozarks Plateau. The script was co-written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini and the film was directed by Granik. Since the central character, Ree Dolly, is a young woman and the narrative is driven by a group of women from a distinctive community, the film has been heralded as a significant example of ‘women’s cinema’. Jennifer Lawrence gives a standout performance and looks set to follow Vera Farmiga whose career was boosted by her performance in Granik’s previous flick, Down to the Bone (2006).

Lawrence plays Ree, a 17 year-old with more responsibility than most young women of her age. Her mother is incapacitated and Ree looks after her two younger siblings. There is no obvious income and Ree has to accept support from her neighbours. But one day she learns that her absent father has put up the home as a bail bond. Since he has now failed to show up for a court hearing, she can expect the bailiffs in the next few days. Ree has no choice – she must find her father. But that is no easy matter in the intensely close but isolated Ozark community where she has many relatives but only a few (female) friends. Her father used to operate a lab in the backwoods making crystal meth. After his disappearance, no-one wants to give Ree any information whatsoever.

I’ve seen references to the literature and adaptations of Cormac McCarthy, but although I can see the argument, I think McCarthy’s narratives have a different feel, possibly because of a very different sense of landscape. The film’s title is important – it’s bleak and desolate in the woods in winter. It’s also dark and Gothic. On the same Review Show as Kane, Tom Devine made the point that many of the people who settled in the Ozarks were Scots-Irish Protestants. Others were Germans, so the dark forest and windswept moor are in the genes no doubt. Some of the power in the film comes from the casting of actors from the region. Lawrence and Dale Dickey who plays her nemesis/saviour are from neighbouring Kentucky and some of the others are from Missouri. I think that the women in particular have some of the strongest faces I’ve seen in a while. I can believe that they could be extremely loyal and loving – but also implacable enemies, ruthless in exacting revenge. Ree has to risk asking questions where she shouldn’t and discovering things that might be better left alone. But she’s a strong character herself. As well as landscape and character Debra Granik offers assured direction and works well with cinematographer Michael McDonough who presents the chilly terrain in careful compositions. But I guess for hillbilly music fans like me the really shattering aspect of the film is the beautiful singing and playing, especially from Marideth Sisco (check out her website with interesting info on the film as well as her music). Perhaps because I’m used to the songs and the lyrics about God and love and death etc., I was slightly less surprised than some others at what happens in the film. My thought was that back in the 1970s we might have seen something like this as a genre movie in mainstream cinemas, possibly with Levon Helm (in the 1980s) or Harry Dean Stanton as casting from the region. It would have had slightly more black humour and been less composed and rigorous perhaps, but I do think that mainstream Hollywood could once make pictures as good as this on a regular basis.

I expect the film to gather nominations come the awards season. It’s a film about strong women but I’m sure it’s a movie for men and women alike in the audience. If men don’t think it’s for them, I hope partners drag them along.

Here’s the US trailer:

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle 29/9/2010 (Thanks Mike)

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