When Winter's Bone exploded earlier this year at Sundance -- winning best drama and screenplay -- it was touted as some kind of "Ozark noir."
While that is a catchy phrase and the film's setting is indeed the Ozarks, calling it a noir is flat-out ridiculous. It has no femme fatales, no double crosses and none of the other qualities that would make it a "noir." Maybe there should be a quick brush up on what a noir actually is for accuracy's sake?
Now that I've gotten the misuse of the noir genre by critics/publicity agents out of the way, I can get to what Winter's Bone is: a gripping, unsettling, powerful and intense drama about a teenager trying to hold her fragile family together in the face of long odds and assorted villains in the rural hills of the Ozarks. Winter's Bone is unrelenting and has two of the year's best acting performances and is now battling it out for the best film released in 2010.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old drop out whose life exists to keep her family intact. Her mother is a catatonic mess, so she's taken over the rearing of her younger brother and sister. Ree cooks for them, walks them to school, quizzes them and gives them tutorials on how to shoot rifles and skin the squirrels they kill in the woods. Due to their poverty, food on the table is scarce, so squirrel and other game they kill or get from the neighbors is always welcome. Without it, they might go hungry.
Things are bad for Ree, but they get worse when one morning the sheriff (the stellar character actor Garret Dillahunt) shows up wanting to know the whereabouts of Ree's no good, meth-cooking, bail-jumping father. He's disappeared and put the ramshackle cabin up as collateral for his bond.
If he misses his court date, Ree and the rest of her family will be split up or suddenly homeless. These people aren't living or hanging out near Celebration City in Branson, so being homeless in this part of the Ozarks would not be good.
Ree has to find her father to make sure he'll go to his appointed court date. This involves a lot of walking desolate, wintry roads (the family owns no car) and knocking on doors at houses that aren't welcoming to questions.
It seems the drug related profession of her father has everyone paranoid to talk to her -- telling Ree anything just creates a possible witness who might talk to the law (or the "laws" as they are known in these parts).
Even though everyone seems to be kin to one another, no one wants to see Ree. Not her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), cousins or friends. Ree refuses to stop looking for her father, stirring up resentment and real danger for herself. These are hard, unforgiving people in the Ozarks.
Winter's Bone is directed by Debra Granik, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell and is deluged by a wonderful authentic quality of the hardscrabble lives of the people on display. Granik's version of this section of the Ozarks is ruthlessly bleak. The hills are wastelands of falling down houses, abandoned cars, chained packs of underfed dogs, isolated trailers on cement blocks, rusted out chicken coops and leaning corrugated sheds. The environment reeks of hopelessness, just like Ree's increasingly dire situation and one feeds off of the other.
As Ree's quest intensifies, so does the sense of danger from the people she needs help from. Her father might be missing, he might be dead, he might be hiding out from the law(s). No one wants to deliver an answer, and Winter's Bone is terrifically paced to become more tense as Ree becomes more frightened and desperate.
The story is just so deceptively simple that it's hard not to be drawn into this unpleasant world. I love stories that are direct and without silly gimmicks, this is one of those brutal honesty kinds of films. They aren't a lot of fun, but when they work, they stick with you for a long time.
While the bulk of the cast is appropriately frightening in a meth-ravaged way, Lawrence and Hawkes steal the show. Hawkes is blistering, coiled with rage, and it's difficult to take your eyes off him when he's on the screen. He's such a solid character actor who deserves more roles.
Lawrence gives a raw performance as Ree, but what elevates it is the fact she is also vulnerable and tender. Being a teenager is full of natural bluff, bravado and anger but to see Lawrence glide between stubborn fearlessness and her matronly duties toward her siblings is great to watch. She's a little loose around the edges, but this was a great performance by Lawrence.
One reason I responded to Winter's Bone is I am a fan of movies set in rural America. Maybe it's because my family is from Le Flore County, Oklahoma's version of the Ozarks. I've sat in living rooms listening to fiddles and banjos being played by old men in overalls, my kinfolk are buried in pine boxes in a small cemetery (where I'll someday join them), I lived in a trailer in the woods for part of my youth, and I've had squirrel for breakfast on more than one occasion. Squirrel is good eatin'.
Those are my people no matter where I live in the world. There is a different attitude about folks from that part of Oklahoma and while I've not been witness to the damages extreme poverty that encourages the drug business/abuse ala Winter's Bone, I feel a connection with this area that will never die. Winter's Bone ties into that link for me, increasing its power tenfold.
Unflinchingly unsentimental, Winter's Bone is one of 2010's best films. It feels more like a fall/winter release, and it's at times riveting and heartbreaking, an intimate look at the resiliency of a teenage girl who finds herself drowning in an awful position in her young life. The only person she can truly believe in is herself, but is that enough? Winter's Bone is highly recommended, just don't call it a noir.
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