Bleak! I could leave it at that but I believe this is a far more interesting movie. Winter’s Bone covers the story of a forgotten part of America by looking at the endemic effects of rural crime and poverty in the unglamorous mountain areas of the Ozarks in the Midwest. We meet the young Ree Dolly (Jennifer Laurence in her break out role), who looks after her family, her sick mother and her younger brothers and sisters in this cold, unforgiving place. She gets a visit from a bail bondsman with the information that she needs to find her father or the house will be taken away from her, removing her only source of stability. This nice simple opening creates one of the most atmospherically bleak movies I have seen for a long time.
This movie really got Jennifer Laurence’s career going and made her the face for The Hunger Games, showing a similarly gritty, practical side to her character’s toughness whilst also looking very pretty throughout her struggles. Another important area of this film is how it conveys menace with very little violence. I was actually surprised how little there was but it conveys these feeling through very simply making you wonder ‘oh crap what is going to happen next?’. It follows what I unofficially call the Joss Whedon school of pacing which involves getting the pretty and sympathetic character into many unpleasant situations, with the feeling that a very unpleasant ending is about to happen to the said character.
The rest of the cast is great, illustrating the dangerous nature of this place. One of the most interesting characters from this misfit bunch is Teardrop Dolly, a cousin of Ree and played by John Hawkes (who was Timothy Oliphant’s right hand as a Jewish industrialist in Deadwood). He is a deeply unstable meth cook who becomes the major link for Ree into the crime world her wayward father has pissed off.
This movies is filmed in the typically cheap way of steady cams, with lots of unusual focus points and from a variety of different angles. It’s rather nicely shot and uses grain filters and slight changes to the light to emphasise the bleakness of the place. Likewise, there are lots of shots with the central character walking alone which nicely conveys the sense of place. It also conveys the mountainous nature of the setting which shows the steepness of the rural location.
This movie was unlucky for many reasons, mainly because it was released in 2010, one of the best Oscars in recent years (Inception, Kings Speech, The Social Network) which limited its press and although it picked up lots of nominations (including ‘best film’), it didn’t win anything. Its other bit of misfortune was that its content was rather similar to the Coen brothers remake of True Grit, which also had a remarkable breakout performance from Hailee Steinfeld. It didn’t quite have the sort of presence it deserved to receive awards but had it come a year before it may well have picked up a few Oscars, such as best actress.
This was a movie I enjoyed far more than I was expecting as it had a depth which was surprising and was nicely nuanced, shot in a unique area and featuring a surprisingly good performance. It has the pacing of an Ibsen play (that may be an off putting or positive trait) and a performance that most surprisingly lived up to the hype.
Retrospective by Harry Riedl