In many ways, Winter’s Bone is the Best Picture nominee most typical of the modern Oscars (or, at least, the criticism of the modern Oscars). While The Fighter echoes the every man appeal of Rocky, The King’s Speech is the archetypal historical and “triumph over adversity” tale, The Social Network is classic morality tale with a modern sheen and True Grit is the nostalgic entry, Winter’s Bone speaks the “indie” attitude that we’ve seen become dominant in the past decade. It’s a film rich in atmosphere and mood, with a bleakness that threatens to escape the screen and devour the audience whole, but it favours this lush approach over pacing and engagement. To say it is glacial, is an understatement.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love here. This is a film that you feel. It follows seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly as she attempts to track down her missing father. He’s skipped out on bail, but he left the family property as collateral – if she can’t find him, she’ s out on her own, along with her two younger siblings and her invalid mother. Although she’s taking care of “two kids that can’t feed themselves yet” (in an environment where “survival” skills include handling a rifle), she herself has been hardened by her harsh surroundings.
As shot by Debra Granik, the cast populate a landscape not that far removed from the post-apocalyptic wastelands of The Road or The Book of Eli. Burnt out cars scatter the landscape (school buses amongst them), and you never have to drive too far to find a burnt out crystal meth lab. Even the forest out behind the Dolly property, which we’re assured is over a century old and a landmark that will be destroyed if the land is seized, is grey and almost lifeless (save squirrels). It’s a tough world, one where you have to do horrible things to survive – there are repeated shots of characters reaching their hands into places that they can’t even bring themselves to look at.
And yet there are some strange moments. Ree needs to steal a truck in order to drive out of the dump she’s in (to a far more civilised world, where there are even hand-sanitizers on display), but she can walk the kids to a school that (while modest) has a huge trophy rack and a marching troupe. One would imagine that the school isn’t just sitting out there amid the wasteland we are constantly shown. Obviously the school exists to provide a contrast between the lives the kids have and the one that they can only dream of, but it’s strange to have it in walking distance when borrowing a truck to reach civilisation is a plot point. But I digress.
The individuals here are as harsh as the landscape. The film really succeeds at constructing a portrait of the kind of people who must survive out there in the wilderness. Everybody is a predator. Everybody has an angle. When Ree starts asking around about her missing father, nobody has any answers, but they all offer her trinkets (money, drugs, food) – a sign of collective guilt. This isn’t a tightly knit community founded on mutual respect and understanding, they are all tied together by fear, loathing and guilt.
Even the next door neighbours want something from Ree, which is crazy (since she has nothing to give). “We could take Sonny off your hands,” the neighbour offers, referring to Ree’s kid brother. It’s easy to see why the children are taught to handle guns. The whole community is one sick and twisted family tree (“some of our blood, at least, is the same,” Ree pleads at one point). I lost track of the connections about an hour in, but nearly everybody is related in some way. And family means dark secrets bubbling away under the surface.
It’s a community where producing a single hand isn’t proof that the fugitive is dead. He could have easily cut it off himself, after all. “They know that trick,” one character laments. Granik and her co-writer Rosellini succeed at constructing an elaborate social profile of the area. It feels genuine and true, as depressing as it is. It’s a world populated with those who self-medicate to escape the problems of the world. Ree’s own mother lost her sanity, and the pills aren’t helping. “She keeps taking ’em,” Ree explains, “but they ain’t helping none.” Still, she keeps on poppin’ them because it’s better than facing the world.
At seventeen, it’s remarkable that Ree herself hasn’t come down with a “taste” for the local drug of choice, crystal meth. After her search leads her down some particularly dark avenues, she’s offered painkillers that her neighbour keeps on-hand. “She’s gonna want more,” the neighbour warns, “but start with two.” It’s easy to see the cycle in effect. Once you realise there’s no escape, I guess it makes sense to start medicating. It’s cold and depressing, but it’s also powerful stuff.
The authorities are, as ever, entirely powerless to help. The local law enforcement is either corrupt or incompetent (or both). When Ree is lured to an army recruitment centre (which the film makes seem especially cynical – what with dangling “free money” at poor people), she explains her situation to the recruitment officer. The best he can do is offer some earnestly recycled words of advice, “Buckle up and stay home.” Pretty much just a pat on the back and a casual acknowledgement of how difficult it must be, from someone who has no idea.
It sounds harsh, and it is. It’s a very cold film. There’s no hint of glamour, which is probably the best approach – but it also undermines various scenes. You know that certain actions won’t happen within the confines of this particular low-key narrative, so it renders various stand-offs rather… ineffective. You know that the tension is never going to reach boiling point (because it’s not that kind of film), and yet we’re teased with a stand-off and a whole variety of posturing.
I think these moments betray the film’s key weakness. It’s slow. It’s very slow. Very little actually happens, because it’s a movie about how little ever changes and how ineffective our heroine is in a world like this. It doesn’t lend itself to especially dynamic or exciting storytelling. As interesting as the sketches of each character may be, nothing ever really happens. Okay, that’s not fair – the central story arc is resolved, but with an underlying message that it wasn’t because of any particular thing our lead character did (at least not directly) – but nothing major ever happens.
I get that it’s kinda the point. The movie is about how these cycles repeat themselves and how family feuds continue perpetually until… well, until someone breaks and does something really stupid. However, the film never really has a sense that anything is happening or that our character has learnt anything as she journeys through the adventure. She starts out knowing pretty much what she knows at the end – there’s no insight or revelation, or growth. She did some stuff that she knew she shouldn’t, but kinda had to in order to protect her family, and in the end it turns out that she shouldn’t have, but still kinda had to.
Jennifer Lawrence is great in the lead role. Being honest, it isn’t the most amazing performance I’ve seen from a teenage actress, but it is very good. I predict big things for her. It’s also good to have John Hawkes back. I had Hawkes pegged as the next big thing about five years ago, but he just vanished (doing Lost and Deadwood, so not really “vanished”). It’s good to see him again.
Winter’s Bone is a decent film, but not a superb one. It does wonderful work with mood and atmosphere, but there’s really only so far these elements can carry a film. I think it’s safe to say that this is the year’s weakest Best Picture nominee, which still – I suppose – represents a vast improvement over years past. It’s not a movie for those who like plot and development, but it captures a lot of the isolation and desolation of the community it documents.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Academy Award, Academy Award for Best Picture, arts, best picture, Daniel Woodrell, Debra Granik, films, Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, King's Speech, Movies, non-review review, Ozarks, review, United States, Winter's Bone