In the dead of August, I am still shaking off the chill from Winter’s Bone. To simply classify the film as an Ozark Gothic mystery would be an underestimation. It is one of the finest movies of the year, and it launches lead actress Jennifer Lawrence and director Debra Granik into the rarefied air of cinematic perfection. Let the Oscar season begin. For my money, Lawrence and Granik are frontrunners.
It’s hard to fathom that this is only Granik’s second feature. Winter’s Bone has the feel of some of the Coen brothers’ early work or even some of the better efforts from Roman Polanski. And there’s great economy in Granik’s direction. Independent filmmakers are sometimes too anxious to impress rather than entertain. Not here.
The subject matter is bleak. We’re dropped deep into rural Missouri, where 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) has become the surrogate head of household in the physical absence of her father and the psychological absence of her mother. Ree is the reluctant caregiver to her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister. Ree feeds and clothes them, even while their mother watches in silence, a prisoner of her nightmares. The father is beyond a ne’er-do-well. He’s despicable, in spite of the fact that he’s never onscreen. Among other things, he manufactures methamphetamine and he’s out of jail on bond. The trouble is, he has put his family’s home up as collateral, and he has gone missing. In a desperate move to save her home, Ree sets out to find him. And as she traverses the backwoods, her journey — and ours — becomes more perilous with each visit to increasingly dangerous characters, most of whom she is related to in some way.
Ree’s helpless odyssey is metaphor for the abject poverty that consumes her. Early in the movie, she’s teaching her siblings how to kill and gut a squirrel for dinner. As her brother reaches in and pulls out an ugly ooze of intestines, he winces and asks, “Do we eat this?”
“Not yet,” Ree responds, and with that, we understand their lot in life.
The supporting cast is filled with authenticity. John Hawkes (The Perfect Storm, American Gangster) plays Teardrop, Ree’s meth junkie of an uncle. He’s terrifying and courageous all at once. We wouldn’t trust him with our wallets, but we’d trust him with our lives. A backwoods Mafia is menacingly managed by Merab (Dale Dickey) and her husband Thump (Ronnie Hall). Are you catching these names? Ree. Teardrop. Merab. Thump. There are no relatives here; there is kin. There are no families here; there is clan.
Granik teamed with Anne Rosellini — who also produced the film — to author the screenplay, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The detail is unsparing in its portrait of Christian and Taney counties in Missouri: the clothes on the wash line, the worn-out toys in the yard, the occasional gunshot echoing from faraway woods.
Bleak. Powerful. Unforgettable.