When I was living on the island of Curacao a couple of years ago, one of the things I missed most about the States was the independent movie. On the island we only got the biggest releases, and by biggest I mean biggest – even Kick-Ass didn’t make the cut. But indies were my favorite part of being a movie critic when I was in college, because they were the most unpredictable. You could tell a lot about the big studio releases from their trailers, but any given indie could a miracle or a disaster. Plus, the disastrous indies were even more fun than the disastrous studio movies, because the indies took themselves so much more seriously.
So, on my second weekend in New York I made sure to find one of the indie movie theaters I had remembered from previous visits, and catch a film that I had heard a lot of good things about, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. I had heard about it because it had won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, so I wasn’t exactly expecting a disaster. However, I wasn’t expecting anything close to what I got: a film which is not only the best of this year so far, but is easily the best film I’ve seen since No Country for Old Men in 2007 – at least.
The film is based on a novel from Daniel Woodrell, whose work is usually described as “country noir.” Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl caring for her senile mother and raising her two siblings in the Ozark backwoods. Their conditions are so desperately impoverished that her only options are to hunt her own food, join the Army, or cook methamphetamine. Her father is facing another jail term for meth-related charges, and he places the family house up as bond before jumping bail. Like so many noir heroes, Ree finds herself forced into solving a mystery: either bring her father in for his court date, or lose her home.
Almost all noir heroes are described by the famous quote from The Big Sleep author Raymond Chandler: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Ree is no different: she hasn’t taken up her father’s business, but it is nonetheless the family business for her, and that makes her unafraid in any confrontation she faces. That alone makes this movie a revelation; when was the last time you saw a heroine with deep steel in herself right from the beginning, instead of having to learn it from a man via some kind of crazy adventure? (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Knight and Day.)
The surprise for me was that Lawrence – a virtual unknown whose biggest previous credit was a role on TBS’ inert Bill Engvall sitcom – was more than up to the task of displaying the steel that Ree possesses. She’s simply amazing, determined and desperate and vengeful and vulnerable in all the right moments. She’s not one of these “30-year-old actresses playing a teenager” either, as according to her IMDb profile Lawrence was 18 or 19 at the time of filming. Ree is clearly meant to be 17 going on 40, and somehow Lawrence captures that perfectly in every scene.
I mentioned earlier that the worst indie movies tended to be hilarious because they were laughably bad but took themselves so seriously. Winter’s Bone goes the way that they should have gone instead: it takes the creation and realism of its setting seriously, but no more than that. The poverty of the Ozarks is displayed without pity, but also without rage or sorrow. Most importantly, the movie avoids the trap of trying to make Ree and her family look noble for getting by as best they can. Granik grabs the audience with her stark visuals and says simply, “This is Ree, and this is her world. Let me tell you what happened to her this one time.”
The really interesting part is that there’s actually very little action in the film, and yet it manages to maintain tension throughout. If you watch the movie version of The Big Sleep, it almost seems like the studio put in a rule that Humphrey Bogart had to punch, shoot, or chase someone every ten minutes. In Winter’s Bone, though, there’s really more of a threat of violence throughout. Even though she is related to some of the key players, there’s still an implication that the meth trade is some sort of Lovecraftian creature that Ree cannot entirely perceive.
The real tension is whether Ree is going to be able to withstand the pressure that is mounting on all sides; whether she, once confronted with the truth of the mean back roads, will be able to remain a woman who is not herself mean. I was riveted to my seat by that tension, and whether you can see Winter’s Bone in a theater or you have to wait for the disc/download, I guarantee that you will be too.
Reviewed By Mark Young
[I originally wrote a slightly different version of this review last year for the website Murmur.com.]