“Winter’s Bone” (2010)
6 July 2010
Poor Timothy Olyphant. While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel. Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.
But I digress. This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive. Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes. This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks. Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility. Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy. I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year. When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do. She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.
It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.” I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking. The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists. Family pride is one place where they glean this power. “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems. There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan. This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.
And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us. Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch. In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture. Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next. (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.) Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages. It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.
If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk. Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it. At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees. Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins. Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.
Granik keeps her eye on the ball. Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders. In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone. When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms. This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural. Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale. The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.
Great film. Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.