Winter’s Bone (2010) – Oscars in review
Jennifer Lawrence excels in the last – but far from the least – of my belated round-up of this year’s Best Picture Nominees.
(Debra Granik, US, 2010)
A neo-Western noir shot through with social realism, this has the political power to match its taut narrative grip and charismatic lead performance
Every year, the cliché goes, there’s always one American indie pic that punches above its weight to cross over, via critical acclaim and the garlands of festivals, to score unexpected but deserved Oscar nominations. But when confronted with a film like Winter’s Bone, it’s possible everyone’s got it the wrong way around. Maybe it’s Hollywood who picks the film to remind itself that it can no longer swing a punch like it used to be able to do in the character-driven, uncompromisingly naturalistic movies of the 1970s.
The story of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old in rural, rugged Missouri who must track down her jailbird father when he skips bail – having put up the family home as collateral – is, at heart, a modern-day Western. Forget the trappings of modern-day America: this is a world where folk still live their lives within miles of your birthplace, where birthdays are celebrated with a bluegrass jam session, and where food comes from knowing how to hunt and skin wild animals.
The difference is that the Fordian myth doesn’t exist in this region: it’s a subversion of the American Dream in bleak, chilly woodland, where you eke out an existence logging timber and the game is usually nothing more substantial than squirrel. Passed on by the rest of America, with little employment and no entertainment, the decades of in-breeding have given Ree’s family an interior mindset. So the family business has become one of self-destruction, the pioneer spirit warped into cooking up crystal meth and engaging in internecine feuds.
“Winter’s Bone brings a compelling narrative grip, but is also a fierce piece of socio-political neo-realism…”
So it’s a Western that’s become a frost-bitten noir, in which Ree must play detective amongst the shadows to find the truth from criminals who speak most clearly in violence. The difference is that, ravaged by drug abuse, these people don’t need to hide in shadows – they are skeletal enough already. Practically zombies, in fact – and there are certainly times when the genre changes again, into the clammy terror of survivalist horror. This is an intriguing contrast to, say, Wolf Creek, because Ree not only has to live here, but she knows each and every monster because they’re her relatives.
The result brings a compelling narrative grip, but is also a fierce piece of socio-political neo-realism: the kind of film Ken Loach might make if he was imbued with a sense of American genre. Debra Granik films without ostentation, the wintry crispness of the imagery confirming that we’re beyond small-town irony or condescension. If a strange, uncharacteristic dream sequence involving squirrels wasn’t enough to point out the film’s otherwise total absence of Lynchian small-town surrealism, the presence of Sheryl Lee – looking gaunt and wasted – shows that this is a film with more serious things to say about the real world.
The true power, though, is the film’s unabashed feminist slant. The men of this world have created such a shithole of their lives that they seem determined to drag their women down into it. When Ree goes it alone to protect her shell-shocked mother and innocent siblings from eviction and worse, she comes up against a wall of cruel, suspicious womenfolk who dish out the beatings because the men’s only concession to chivalry is that they won’t hurt Ree themselves. It’s a parallel for the squalid feud between Ree’s uncle Teardrop and his cousins, and Ree is fighting simply not to become like them. But what’s the only other option the American government provides to Ree’s generation? Army recruitment, the chance to take the violence and degradation overseas rather than its own backyard.
Powerful stuff, all the more so because of Jennifer Lawrence’s extraordinary performance. Lawrence is beautiful, a pin-up in real life, and even covered in functional winterwear Granik can’t stop her looking like an Amazonian compared to the rest of the film’s cast. But that contrast gives the film the symbolism of a fable, the story’s high stakes etched in Lawrence’s features. Because Ree’s face is already turning hard, her eyes capable of narrowing into the stony, determined look of her kin – and yet she’s still a girl, and genuinely terrified of the people she meets, even Teardrop (himself the very definition of tough/tender in a revelatory performance from John Hawkes, the nice guy in Deadwood here displaying an unsettling, jittery angst). Lawrence turns on a dime, steely but soulful, brave but bashful. Without her, it’s arguable that the film’s subject and storytelling might clash, but Lawrence makes you feel the film’s power.
This, incidentally, is what she normally looks like.