Winter’s Bone is the ultimate indie darling right now, and one of the longer shots for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. I’ve been curious about the film for the last month or two, so when I saw it pop up on Netflix, I decided to check it out.
My guess, without having seen all ten films nominated this year, is that Winter’s Bone does not deserve to win Best Picture over some of the other works that are up. That being said, I liked a lot about this movie, and I’m certainly glad that Jennifer Lawrence’s understated performance did not go unnoticed.
Also? I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the Ozarks. Cause I’m honest enough to admit, I’m so not that tough. At all.
Winter’s Bone is about a 17-year old girl, Ree (Lawrence), who’s been left to take care of her little brother and sister after her father gets arrested and her mother goes more or less catatonic. When her father fails to show up for his date in court, Ree sets out to find him before the state can take away their house.
1.) Winter’s Bone doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s not so confusing that you’re left scratching your head at the end of the movie, going, “Uhhhh . . . what?” but it does force you to make a lot of the connections for yourself. The evidence is all there; there just isn’t a wrap-up scene explaining who did what and for what reason. I liked that. I thought it was done well.
2.) Of course, some of my initial confusion might have been due at least in part to my inability to hear people properly, particularly Teardrop (John Hawkes—we’ll talk more about him later). It’s not really that anyone spoke so unclearly. I’m just notoriously bad with accents, and Teardrop has an incredibly deep pitch that makes it hard for me to distinguish certain words from other words. Which is funny, because I actually liked Teardrop’s voice a lot. In every other role I’ve seen, John Hawkes leans toward the funny, high-pitched, occasionally somewhat hysterical voice. Here, he’s got that deep, very casual drawl, and it sounded really natural to me. I just had to keep turning up the volume to try and catch the freaking words, is all.
3.) Actually, while we’re talking about Hawkes . . . he got a Best Supporting nod for his role as Teardrop, which, good for him. I don’t know that he’s really got much chance in Hell, but he certainly has charisma. The first time you see Teardrop on screen, you’re thinking, Well, there’s a winner . . . but it’s interesting to watch him develop and unfold as the movie progresses. It’s a quiet role, but then, it’s a quiet film, and I think Hawkes does it justice.
4.) I also thought Jennifer Lawrence as Ree was exceptionally strong.
Ree is not an easy role to play. Ree isn’t spunky; Ree is tough, and there’s a difference. I like a girl who’s quick with a comeback and looks good in leather pants and kicks any guy’s ass that she comes in contact with . . . but that’s all urban fantasy and comic book hero. Ree, on the other hand, is a realistic heroine. She doesn’t have superpowers. She isn’t a crusader. She’s just tenacious, and she’s doing what she has to do to survive. Jennifer Lawrence could have given a loud, showy performance, screaming out every other word and demanding recognition as a badass . . . but instead she chooses subtlety, and it’s a smart choice.
Ree is an incredibly impressive heroine. Her character is easily the best thing about the film.
5.) On the downside . . . I have a few, small editing problems with Winter’s Bone, nothing that’s awful or ruins the film, just some transitions that don’t quite work for me and a dream sequence that took me right out of the movie. I really didn’t like that dream sequence at all. Overall, these are small blemishes, but they are noticeable ones.
6.) I also kind of wish that Garret Dillahunt had a little more to do in this film. That’s not really a complaint against the movie itself, just a general observation. I like what I’ve seen of Dillahunt so far, and I’d love for him to get a larger movie role worthy of his talent. Still. Deadwood reunion, folks! Between this and Justified, it’s like Deadwood never left.
7.) I can’t go into too much detail about the end, of course, but while this film isn’t very explicitly gory, there are definitely a few moments that are pretty horrific. This only made me like Winter’s Bone even more. It’s the kind of movie that gets described as “uncompromising” and “unflinching” and I think both of those assessments are pretty fair.
Sadly, everything else I want to talk about includes spoilers, so here’s your official spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading here, rent it, and then come back. Small flaws aside, I think this film is worth it. Don’t ruin the ending for yourself. This means you, Kat : )
So, here’s the sad truth. Jessup, Ree’s daddy? Yeah, he’s dead. It turns out that Jessup crossed the rest of the meth-making, no-good family by turning snitch, and somehow the good ole Sheriff (Dillahunt) accidentally let the word out. So, someone in the family killed Jessup. It’s never said exactly who did it, but the end result’s pretty much the same: one dead dude at the bottom of the river. (Or the lake. I can’t remember. Anyway, some body of water.)
Ree gradually comes to the realization that her father’s dead, but she’s forced to keep looking because she needs evidence for the cops; otherwise, she’ll lose their home. Eventually, Merab (Dale Dickey) takes Ree out on a boat to where her father’s body has been hidden. (After she and her sisters beat the shit out of Ree for asking too many questions, of course. No favor comes without a price.) Ree has to reach into the dark waters for her father’s body and hold his arms out in the air so that Merab can saw Jessup’s hands off. And where I would be having a hysterical breakdown right about this point, and where a caricature of a heroine would be all tough and unconcerned about helping saw off her father’s hands . . . the look on Ree’s face as she does what has to be done . . . I simply cannot say enough for Jennifer Lawrence’s acting. Phenomenal. And she’s, like, what? Twenty? How I feel so unaccomplished.
Ree takes the hands down to the Sheriff as proof of her father’s death. She also gets a little money that was put down by a mysterious benefactor as part of Jessup’s bail. (This was one of those connections that I didn’t quite make while watching the film . . . though the identity of this man was never revealed, it’s probably someone from the gang who needed Jessup out of jail in order to kill him.)
At the end of the movie, Teardrop (who is Jessup’s brother . . . kind of forgot to mention that) tells Ree that he’s found out who killed Jessup. Which is bad because Teardrop has already told her that he probably shouldn’t know the murderer’s name, since if he ever did find out, he would be more or less honor-bound to avenge his brother, snitch or no snitch. Teardrop leaves Ree and her siblings to go murder whoever, and if he doesn’t get killed in the process, he’s almost sure to get murdered later. Which, not exactly an upper. You kind of want Teardrop to change his mind and help Ree raise these two other children since she shouldn’t have to do it by herself. Then again, there’s no doubt at all that Ree can’t do it by herself. The ending’s sad, but it’s also hopeful, because one way or another, you know the three Jessup children will at least be together, and that’s what’s really important.
Besides the sawing-of-the-hands scene, my other favorite part of Winter’s Bone is this: Ree, after getting beat up, pleads with the gang to show him where her father’s body is. She makes it clear that she’s not out for revenge; she doesn’t care who murdered Jessup. She just needs to save her family. I like this because it reminds me of reading different versions of Red Riding Hood where the story doesn’t end with the Wolf being killed; the story ends with Red (or whatever her name was in that particular version) being clever enough to escape. It’s not about vengeance or justice, just about survival.
In horror movies, it’s usually not enough for the victim to survive. The killer has to be killed, or else the story isn’t over. Here, the focus isn’t on avenging anyone or getting the bad guy gone; it’s just about a strong girl saving herself and her siblings. And I really think that’s something worth looking at in more stories.
Tentative Grade: B+/A-
Moral: “Pray for the dead . . . but fight like hell for the living.” – Mother Jones
Also, life sucks in the Ozarks, man. Move. Quickly.