FILM REVIEW: Winter's Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (USA, 2010)
Directed by Debra Granik
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garrett Dillahunt, Dale Dickey

There has always been a certain amount of prejudice surrounding festival films, particularly films which cause a stir at Sundance. Without wishing to sound snobbish, the recent output of films from said festival has been a complete mixed bag. The good or interesting efforts, like Teeth and The Killer Inside Me, demonstrate the resourcefulness of low-budget filmmakers, while The Squid and the Whale and Little Miss Sunshine are either too quirky and cute for their own good, or far too smug to be taken seriously.Winter's Bone is one of the better recent offerings from the Sundance 'stable', containing a number of interesting scenes and beautiful visuals anchored by a remarkable central performance by Jennifer Lawrence. The film attempts to explore addiction in an unconventional way, drawing on fairy tales and the work of Terence Malick to show the plight of one family in the Ozark Mountains. It's heavily flawed and narratively uneven, but there is also much here to be admired.

On the good side, Winter's Bone has a haunting visual sensibility which is enhanced through Michael McDonough's beautiful cinematography. The film was shot entirely on location in the mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and Granik's camera really pulls you into this isolated community. The screen is bathed is silvery greys and a range of blue shades to create an air of melancholy and convey just how long everything has been here. None of the buildings look like they were built specifically for the shoots, all the roads are rocky and the vehicles are beaten-up and battle-scarred.Like Slumdog Millionaire and Precious before it, Winter's Bone has been accused in some quarters of 'poverty porn', i.e. of examining poverty-stricken individuals or communities in such a way as to belittle them to cause guilt or entertainment to the viewing public. The merest glance at the plot summary for any of these films renders this argument totally bankrupt, and that is particularly true for Winter's Bone. Instead of getting us to revel in depictions of people who are vulnerable or inferior, the film is about said individuals demonstrating strength and resourcefulness.

The film is anchored by a brilliant central performance by relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence. Several critics have compared her to Jodie Foster (with whom she is due to star in The Beaver), and the comparison is valid to a very large extent. There is the same sense of intuition, of someone who knows exactly how to play a scene without any Method-like familiarity with the situation, and whose understatement both comforts an audience and engages them in increasingly sinister circumstances. It's a strong performance of a very interesting heroine figure.Although it is staged and acted naturalistically, so much of Winter's Bone plays out like an epic poem or a Grimm's fairy tale. Like many fairy tales, our heroine has to go off on a quest, and on the way has to confront a (literal) brood of menacing antagonists, out to either forestall her or destroy her altogether. And this is not a more recent Disney vehicle, in which the plot is so formulaic that we know that Ree will survive and learn something in the process. The stakes here are very high, and very real, as demonstrated by the really uncomfortable scenes where Ree is beaten up and kidnapped.

As a treatment of addiction, the film takes a very different approach to the likes of Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, which focus very much on the personal turmoil of the characters and their escaping into fantasy. The drug element of Winter's Bone is much more incidental, something which is condemned fleetingly by several characters but which also seems to be a tolerated part of the community. There are brief hints that the substance has made Ree's mother so helpless, and Ree herself is repulsed by the drug. But there is no attempt to turn the story into a TV-movie of the week about the triumph of the human spirit; the crystal meth becomes another unseen menace, cohabiting with the other characters.Winter's Bone is also about blood (in the familial sense) and the code of silence in communities. In one key exchange, Lawrence is attempting to extract information from Dale Dickey; when she is reluctant to tell her anything, she shouts: "doesn't our blood mean anything to you?". It's a film very much about the cadence of people's voices, and what is implied by silence is every bit as important as what is actually said. We've seen dozens of films about suburban neighbourhoods in which the neighbours shun or turn on newcomers who ask questions. But few have managed to transfer this to a rural setting, and Winter's Bone deserves commendation for this.

The problems with the film, however, are every bit as noticeable as its assets. For one thing, the story is very thin, and the resulting slow pace to spread the story out makes the film seem a lot longer than 100 minutes. Like the later work of Terence Malick, it's a film which relies as much on the tone and the shape of the landscape to keep our attention as it does on character development, and there are moments where Winter's Bone veers too close to the first half of The New World, in terms of its plodding storytelling.Because the story is so thin, the most harrowing moments of the film do not carry nearly as much weight as they should. The scenes of Ree being beaten up and threatened by the townsfolk serve their purpose, even if the degree of violence is not justified half as well as in The Killer Inside Me. But the final twist involving a trip to a secret location and bones being severed somehow doesn't fit with all that has gone before. As with The Road, it's not the twist itself that is the problem, it's the execution - there's so little effective build-up that there isn't the tension needed to make it as shocking as it needs to be.

On top of this, a lot of the scenes in Winter's Bone are diverting and, frankly, a bit dull. We don't really need to see Ree attempting to teach her young brother to skin a squirrel to eat, or showing him how to use a gun to shoot the things. Scenes like this play out too slowly and distract from the matter in hand; this in turn lowers the level of suspense and hence the twists are not all that remarkable. The mother, who never speaks, is almost a superfluous character. We understand how isolated and endangered Ree and her siblings are without her, and she makes very little impact on the events that unfold.In years to come Winter's Bone will probably be known more as a calling card for Lawrence than as a genuinely great movie in its own right. It could do for her career what Taxi Driver or Bugsy Malone did for Foster's, and on the basis of this she deserves the same level of success. Beyond that it's a decent work with an interesting slant on addiction and some solid direction from Granik. But its slight nature and troublesome execution make its hard to fully recommend it.

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: Long on beauty, short on story


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