“Winter’s Bone” tells you immediately what tone to expect for the duration of your journey. Two young children bounce up and down on a trampoline that sits outside a dilapidated wood cottage that is surrounded by discarded playthings and car parts. A folk waltz about Missouri plays over the soundtrack and, as a teenage girl takes down the laundry and plays with the kids she so clearly looks after, it seems to me that Missouri might as well be misery. These are the Ozark Mountains. This is an America that is not often seen in film – an America that has nothing, trusts no one and doesn’t stand a chance. This is the America that America would rather forget.
The girl is Ree Dolly (relative unknown and inevitable awards season breakout Jennifer Lawrence). She is sixteen years old and she cannot join the army like she wants because she must take care of her two younger siblings and her mentally unstable mother. At an age when the concept of responsibility is only freshly coming into existence for most, Ree must embody it so that her family doesn’t fall apart. And as if chopping the firewood, preparing dinner and making sure the children know both their math lessons and firearm safety weren’t enough for her to shoulder, she must now also find her estranged father. His latest battle with the law over his career as a meth manufacturer has put her home in jeopardy. Her father owns the home and he needed something to put up for bail so if he misses his court date, her family loses everything they have. Their only hope is this young girl.
Lawrence fought hard for this role. It was thought that she was too pretty for the part and, while she is definitely a pretty girl, her performance is about as raw and ugly as they come. Each character she meets greets her with trepidation and aggression and yet each of these people is somehow related to her in some distant fashion. They know her plight and you can see that most yearn to help but that it always stops there because no one dares get involved out of fear for their own person. Lawrence is fearless in the face of these challenges. She relentlessly hunts down her father to secure her family’s basic need for shelter. This is strife; this is suffering. This is survival in the truest sense of the word.
An American flag still hangs outside the Dolly home. It does not fly proudly but rather it just droops, defeated and tired. “Winter’s Bone”, directed with grace and respect by Debra Granik, and based on a brilliantly bare screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, is a visceral experience that makes its points frankly and strongly. It speaks sharply to the dated gender roles, commonplace drug usage and extreme poverty that flood these parts without anyone knowing or caring and it does so in a soft voice that allows the audience to see how dire it is with their own eyes. Even this America will not go down without a fight.
Review by Joseph Bélanger