In the extraordinary independent film Winter’s Bone (2010), the large Dolly clan lives off the grid. The movie is set in the Missouri Ozarks, in backcountry—way back, where the front yards are filled with dead cars and cracked toilets, and the children ride wooden horses and hunt squirrels. There are no telephones, much less cell phones or computers, and not a TV in sight.
Poverty is not necessarily the issue: the Dollys, we can see, don’t particularly want to join the consumer society; they live among cast-off things because they’re used to them. Their indifference to the outside world turns hostile when they’re visited by “the law.” Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the brilliant, determined seventeen-year-old who is the heroine of the movie, is a law unto herself. She takes care of her withdrawn mother and her kid brother and sister, and she treks across a colorless winter landscape, visiting relatives as she looks for her father, Jessup, who cooks methamphetamine for a living. Jessup was arrested and then released when he put up his house and land as bond. If he doesn’t appear in court, Ree and the rest of her immediate family will lose everything.
The script—which the director, Debra Granik, and her collaborator, Anne Rosellini, adapted from the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell—doesn’t spell things out, but, as Ree travels around, we slowly get the point: all the Dollys, in one way or another, are involved in the meth trade. They guard secrets that they don’t wish Ree to know about or even ask about. Without making an actual appearance, meth is a character in the film, creating paranoia and corruption everywhere. Winter’s Bone is something new in movies: a “country-noir” thriller.
Daniel Woodrell writes with insistent rhythm and an evocative and poetic regional flavor. It’s a good style, but a literary one, and the filmmakers, while drawing heavily on Woodrell’s plot and dialogue, don’t try to imitate it. The movie, which was plainly and beautifully shot by Michael McDonough, is matter of fact, with a strong feeling for the dailiness of life. Yet the Ozarks are a world so little known to most of us that the physical details seem a revelation, a fulfillment of realism’s promise to show us what we have never seen or noticed before. And the plainness never goes slack, so the thick physical texture is entirely dramatic.
Debra Granik, who earlier made Down to the Bone, with Vera Farmiga, creates an aura of violence through suggestion, half-finished sentences, or a threatening or sorrowful look; she envelops us in mysteries that can never quite be solved, because the Dollys don’t want them solved. Truculent and reserved, eloquent only in brief outbursts garnished with a twist of perverse wit, the Dollys operate with a double-edged sense of kinship—they will protect you up to a point but, at the same time, your life belongs to them. Ree never knows what she’s going to face: a relative will be helpful one moment and intimidating the next.
There have been a lot of earnest, methodical movies coming out of the Sundance Film Festival lately, but Winter’s Bone, which premièred there and took the best-picture prize, is what we’ve been waiting for: a work of art that grabs hold and won’t let go. It was shot with digital equipment, for a mere two million dollars, buoyed by tax incentives from the state of Missouri. The cast members seem rooted, marked by tough times, and utterly authentic. Some of them are local people, but the main roles are taken by professional actors, including Jennifer Lawrence, who has flowing blond hair, lidless blue eyes, and a full mouth. Her Ree is the head of a household, a womanly girl with no time for her own pleasure, and Lawrence establishes the character’s authority right away, with a level stare and an unhurried voice that suggest heavy lifting from an early age.
The movie would be unimaginable with anyone less charismatic playing Ree. In a series of soul-shaking confrontations, Lawrence is matched by the veteran character actress Dale Dickey, who plays the wife of the clan’s crime boss with an uncanny bitter intensity, and by John Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle, who at first seems antagonistic and wasted—no one has ever dragged on a cigarette with greater need—but becomes something else: Ree’s protector, and a moral man unafraid of death. In all, the acting and the milieu are so closely joined that when the final shot goes to black, and the spell is broken, the audience gasps.
An album of snapshots from an earlier time suggests that the Dollys have fallen from a stable, prosperous, middle-class life. We don’t know why they’ve fallen, though the drug trade and the military seem to be the only career paths that they consider following. Winter’s Bone isn’t a liberal sociological study of poverty; nor does it rely on genre conventions. We feel so apprehensive for Ree because we have no idea which way the story will go: Mafia behavior is predictable; the Dollys are unfathomable. We look to the older Dolly women for clues. They work at protecting their mangy, surly men, but they know how to get around them, too, and, when they have to, they do the dirty business of cleaning up crimes. Ree is the only hope amid this sordid life. She’s not just the most interesting teen-ager around, she’s more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we’ve seen peacocking through movies recently. In its lived-in, completely non-ideological way, Winter’s Bone is one of the great feminist works in film.
Review courtesy of The New Yorker