Although its story is driven by a mystery surrounding certain missing person, the mystery only serves as a trigger for something far more than itself in “Winter’s Bone”. While we follow its heroine’s plight and wait for the answer to that mystery to come out, a harsh world that frustrates its heroine relentlessly for many reasons is unfolded in front of our eyes along with her desperate but strong determination against this despairing world. Despite its slow pace, the movie has the atmosphere shrouded in subtle tension with good performances to engage us into the story, and, when the tension is no longer at atmospheric level at certain moments, we find ourselves fear for her.
A 17-year-old-girl Ree Dolly(Jennifer Lawrence) lives in some rural town in the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. She has already been leading hard daily life when her latest trouble appears. Her mother is ill, and her younger sister and brother are still too young and innocent to take care of themselves, so she has been laboriously taking care of her family instead of her absent father Jessup, who has been known a lot around the neighbourhood for his criminal activities including cooking methamphetamine. It is not a big deal to her or others because, like her father, many of her neighbors are involved in crimes in one way or others.
One day, the town sheriff visits Ree’s house and he gives her a bad news. Her father recently put their house at collateral bail to get out of jail, and it seems he will probably not show up at the court date. After a week, Ree’s family will be evicted out of their house with nowhere else to live if her father does not turn himself in. Ree goes around asking people who may know or have clues about his whereabouts, but there is little success. As time goes by, it is getting apparent that her father is possibly dead, but, if that so, she still needs to find him for keeping their house. The time is getting short, and she is desperate, and people who probably can help her, including her drug-addicted uncle Teardrop(John Hawkes), does not seem to be willing to do that for their personal reasons. She mostly gets unkind responses from them with hostility.
Through her journey, a small, tightly-knitted community where everybody is somebody’s cousin is shown to us. If you do or say something, the words can be spread out quickly in this neighbourhood. Some characters in the movie likely know about the answer Ree seeks, but they do not trust her even though she is related to them. Although they may understand she needs help, they are more concerned about their circumstances and family loyalty. As one character says offscreen, “talking just causes the witnesses”, and they do not want to risk their unstable position due to illegal activities. And they are willing to do anything for protecting their standings; that puts Ree in a very precarious situation as warned by her uncle and others.
The movie was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in last January(it got two awards including Grand Jury prize), and then it was shown later in US theaters in last June. Like many other countries, overseas independent motion pictures usually arrive late in South Korea(For example, “Junebug” took two years to get released here, and “Frozen River” is still not released except in several local film festivals), so I did not particularly expect “Winter’s Bone” to be released soon in South Korea. However, my prediction turned out to be wrong delightfully. Maybe because of recent Oscar buzz surrounding the film along with US critics’ enthusiastic responses, the movie is released in South Korean theaters in this weekend – limited release as I predicted, but quite earlier than I had expected.
And what a good timing it is. Our South Korean audiences experienced the bleak world of “The Road”, an excellent gloomy film based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel in last January, and now, after a year in the same month with colder winter weather, we get another movie filled with bleak beauty evocative of that movie. Shot on the real locations, the film has authentic mood. I was not familiar with the Ozarks, but, like any good movies that transport us into the real worlds alien to us, I could instinctively sense that the movie showed a real world to me.
There is a certain sense of familiar hopelessness pervading its scenes. I am sure it is the 21th century (or near it) in the story, but this place looks like having unaffected by the influences from outside. They have cars, electricity, and a school, and a police station, but it is hard to find any sign of modern technology. Under the cold, gloomy weather, the woods around the town are shown from time to time to accentuate the desolate condition of this place. Useless objects are scattered around here and there with no one to use them. And it is hard for Ree’s family to get the food. Because it is not season for deers, Ree shot a couple of squirrels instead and later we see her teaching her younger brother and sister how to skin them.
While learning how to remove guts from her, her brother asks, “Do we have to eat it?” Ree plainly replies: “Not yet”. Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, the director Debra Granik and the co-writer Anne Rosellini create a sad, honest story with no ostentation. Like Ree’s reply mentioned above, the characters’ situations, thoughts and feelings are conveyed through short, plain words. Despite tons of hardships and following desperation burdened on its heroine, there is no such a thing like showy melodramatic moment in the movie. Even in the most perilous situation, there is only her exhausting will talking quietly to others who have even thought about killing her for poking around them.
While the relationships between characters are not clearly explained and it is sometimes a little confusing to describe them, Granik and Rosellini compensate that flaw by filling their story with vivid characterization. Thanks to the wonderful cast, you can instantly accept that people in the movie have been through hardships for years and years while living there from tired, wrinkled faces. In their world, kindness is not something they can accomodate easily.
Already nominated for Best Actress award at Golden Globe awards and Screen Actors Guild awards of this year with lots of praises from critics and bright future in her career, it is almost certain that Jennifer Lawrence will be Oscar-nominated for Best Actress for her breakthrough performance in this movie. She is very realistically convincing as a ordinary but remarkable teenager girl who struggles to keep her and her family’s life going in her bleak world. She rarely raises her voice, and she says not much, but her overflowing desperation and exhaustion can be glimpsed inside her calm face. None the less, Ree has lost none of her will – and her belief in the basic decency of people surrounding her. At one point, she says to her brother, “Never ask for what ought to be offered.” That is how she gets help from others while keeping basic dignity.
The supporting actors are as good as Lawrence. John Hawkes, who can be a surprise Oscar nominee on next Tuesday, is excellent as a conflicted man capable of showing both heartlessness and compassion to his niece. I fondly remember Dale Dickey as one of hilarious caricatures in TV series “My Name Is Earl”, but she shows quite different side to me with her realistic performance in this movie. Her character can be quite ruthless when she thinks she has to do something to deal with the situation, but she also can be compassionate. There are some unanswered questions, and one of them is whether she makes a certain decision for herself or is allowed to do that.
After watching the film, I wondered whether cold, sad, lonely independent movies about desperate people were becoming a genre of their own, or cliche of their own. But I won’t mind as long as they have good stories to tell with good characters, and “Winter’s Bone” is one of them. We know that Ree will eventually get what she wants to know for it is a familiar story to us, but the movie holds our attentions with calm tension, and we attentively observe her struggling through difficult situation. The world surrounding her is dangerous and hostile, and she knows that well, but she persistently tries even if there is little she can do. In the end, there are some unsolved things left in the story, but that does not matter to us for the movie works as something more than thriller while being a functional thriller. And we are certain that she will go on – no matter what happens next after another frustrating chapter of her difficult life.
So glad you got to see this film ahead of schedule, Seongyong. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to wait.
I just wanted to mention my fascination with John Hawk’s insightful portrayal of Teardrop. Hawks does such a wonderful job of mixing menace with a sorrowful sense of fatalism, that I found it hard to keep my eyes off of him. The look in his eyes as he glances out the rearview mirror, shotgun in hand, calmly asking the sheriff if they’re gonna “do this” is both chilling and tragic at the same time. He has the look of a beaten dog, who, while still fully capable of ripping out a man’s throat, knows that his future is destined to be brief, bleak, and ultimately, futile.
SC: I watched it for the first time in last October when DVD and Blu-ray were released. I wrote this after the second watching in late December(for deciding whether I had to include it in my Top 10 list or not) and the third one in last weekend.
Yes, that scene was really tense with tragic side thanks to Hawkes’ performance.
I saw this some time back. Maybe needs a second view if possible. I felt there was too much stress on the localisms of the region than a universal tale of human survival. Your knowledge of the industry is really prolific.
SC: But a universal tale of human survival prevails in the end.
In my humble opinion (and whatever that’s worth) this was the second best film of the year, beaten out only by “Inception.” But that’s a debate for another time…
You said that you are unfamiliar with the Ozarks, yet you still feel connected to the central struggles of the characters. As someone who grew up in an area near where this film took place, I can say that it was downright eerie how well they captured the culture.
One of the things that I loved the most was how it depicted unwritten rules and social hierarchy. It reminded me of mafia and gangster films, especially “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” in that there was a strict social hierarchy that needed to be followed. You didn’t just talk to the boss…you went through his underlings…
But there are other similarities, too. I wonder if you saw them…
SC: It is a “country noir”. The answer may be waiting at the end of labyrinth, but, to get the answer, the heroine must go through lots of dnagers and many interesting characters in that dark world. Not different from a typical noir, but it has its own specifics; it is a real world, and the life is busy and difficult for moving on.
You may want to scroll down past my review of this film (I saw it last year at SIFF) to the interview with Granik and Rosellini (past the first photo), as they explain how they got the details right about the culture: http://wp.me/pXUpa-1K
“Country noir” indeed. I felt there were a few hiccups with this film, but still thought it was great. Also, I’m glad John Hawkes got Oscar-nominated for his role as Teardrop. He and Jennifer Lawrence deserve their nominations.
SC: Thanks for the link.