Billy Gray

Winter’s Bone

In Movie Reviews on August 25, 2010 at 12:01 pm

There’s a banjo in Winter’s Bone. And one scene that could be a primer on how to deep-fry a squirrel you shot in your backyard. But Debra Granik’s Appalachian drama otherwise skips the backwoods genre tropes Deliverance established 38 years ago.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is 17. Her dad is on the lam. Her mom is a mute. And her younger brother and sister depend on her for basic survival. The authorities will seize the house she runs unless her father shows up for trial. He’s a notorious meth cooker. “My dad would never blow up a lab. That’s what he’s known for,” Ree says at one point in her perilous quest to find him down along Arkansas’s northern border.

But Granik and Anne Rosellini’s terse screenplay doesn’t treat crystal as a novelty whose intricacies must be explained to urbane indie audiences. I’m not even sure the characters utter the drug’s name. Instead there are oblique references to labs, tweaking, cooking and bad batches. It’s not a blasé take on methamphetamines, but a realistic one. And the sparse dialogue extends to the movie’s more prosaic moments, namely the interactions between Ree and her ruined family, struggling friends and shattered acquaintances.

As Ree sets off to find her dad, Winter’s Bone becomes a twisted, engrossing mashup of The Odyssey and no-collar Southern Gothic. Every setting is sinister and inhabited by dangerous creeps. It feels like a horror film at times. But you don’t sense that Granik is manipulating you, even if a couple of scenes—they involve a cattle corral and a misty late night canoe ride—flirt with cheap exploitation and regional kitsch overkill.

Lawrence isn’t just in nearly every scene, but almost every frame. She’s a stealth knockout. Ree is stubborn for all the right reasons, and too tough for her own good. There are flashes of fear, but mostly fierce unflappability, whether it’s applied to putting a stew on the table for her siblings or defying the craggy hillbilly Merab (a chilling Dale Dickey) who prohibits her from seeing Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), the Ozarks’ most fear druglord and the one man who could help Ree find her dad.

You meet several indelible characters in Winter’s Bone. If only you got more time to know them. Lawrence is far from showy, but she’s the prism through which Granik filters the whole movie. I wish Winter’s Bone had been less Homeric and episodic and taken time to develop compelling relationships that instead stay on the periphery. The interplay between Ree and her tweaking, hollowed out uncle Teardrop (a convincingly weary John Hawkes) comes close to making this more than a one-woman show. But through no fault of Lawrence’s, everyone else falls by the wayside.

Michael McDonough films Ree, subsidiary characters and the ragged mountain scenery in an effectively grainy, autumnal brown. He employs a sleeker grey-blue hue at the moments where the film borders on generic horror overkill. Granik keeps most of these cruder impulses in check. But recalling Ree’s advice to her brother that “you never ask for something people should give,” you wish Winter’s Bone had given just a little bit more.

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