WINTER’S BONE. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt, and Dale Dickey. Directed by Debra Granik. Rating MA15+ Restricted (Strong themes, violence and drug references). 100 min.
This American film is an adaption of the novel, “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell, which was published in 2006. It won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film and best Screen Play at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and has won accolades on the international film festival circuits, including two awards at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival.
It tells the story of a group of people living in abject poverty in rural USA and focuses on a 17-year old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who sets out to find her father who has disappeared in the Ozarks Mountain Country in southwest Missouri. Her father is a hopeless drug addict and trafficker. He leaves behind a wife, who is mentally disabled and cannot cope, and two other children, who are cared for by Ree. Time is running out for Ree. She has to lure her father back home to face a court appearance, otherwise their house and property, which he put up as a bond following his arrest, will be lost to them forever, and the whole family will be turned out to survive in the woods. Her relatives in the woods don’t think she should be interfering, and especially so, because she is a woman. Ree risks her life to try and bring her father back, and she breaks the code of silence that binds her relatives together. They want to protect their drug-dealing at any cost and her journey to find her father proves traumatic. The relatives are part of a criminal community, which has substituted drug trafficking for farming, and they lie to protect themselves against being found out. Ree threatens their livelihood. She fights against almost insurmountable odds, and endures physical violence and psychological pain at their hands in a tragic emotional journey.
Lawrence’s performance as Ree is outstanding. She plays her character with incredible conviction, and arouses strong empathy with her plight. This is a grim story, but Lawrence manages to inject a ray of hope that keeps Ree’s spirit, and ours, alive. Ree’s encounters with her family and strangers in the woods are harrowing, cruel, and brutal. But her spirit triumphs over the lies, injuries and harassment she encounters all along the way. No-one can escape the abject poverty of these people, which the film captures in carefully studied, wonderful visual detail. Their lives interconnect with each other. Some people in the woods, like Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), mix nastiness with generosity and sympathy, while others are just plain nasty. Dale Dickey’s stands out with her gripping performance as Merab, the matriarch of the woods community, who takes Ree on a boat-ride that is impossible to forget. The Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), who is responsible for upholding law and order in the community can’t help, because he is implicated.
This is classical tragedy, with a thriller touch and a murder plot thrown in. The film is emotionally wrenching to watch, dramatically sharp in its execution, and intensely involving. The desolation of the Ozarks Mountain Country is captured superbly by the film’s almost colourless cinematography, and the woods’ brooding presence permeates the entire film. The musical soundtrack to the film also stands out, recalling the haunting banjo-playing by the mountain people in John Boorman’s (1972) thriller masterpiece, "Deliverance”.
The film as a whole is a morality tale where injustice yields to a strong-willed girl’s grit and determination. Ree’s demands on her community are something finally it can’t reject. Ree tries to escape her own kind, but is caught. She represents their path to redemption, and the film’s shocking climax illustrates her redemptive role with startling impact.
This is not a pleasant film to watch, but it is one that should be seen. The emotion it arouses stays firmly in the mind. In fluctuating between hope and despair, this quality film illustrates compellingly that justice and resilience (for the moment) win the day.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 18th. 2010.