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March 2011

Winter's Bone

cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garrett Dillahunt and Sheryl Lee

director: Debra Granik

100 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Fusion Media DVD Region 2

RATING: 10/10
review by Paul Higson




Jennifer Lawrence with kids, in Winter's Bone
Winter's Bone

One can watch film after film and buy into the design and artistry, leaving happy with the few great moments. It might be a particular shot or image or your latest favourite line of dialogue. Whatever, it gives you the talking points and you forgive it the rest, no matter how mediocre the rest of the film is. A film like Debra Granik's Winter's Bone may not have the crop-duster sequence, or Joe Pesci behaving threateningly across a table, or a long-haired ghoul spilling out of the television set, but shouldn't true accomplishment come in a film that is consistent in its quality, even if it's understated? Gravik's film eschews that unerring steadiness of interest across story, character and detail. It stands as a realist tour of lives and lifestyles in a hick rural community in the Ozark mountains, Missouri, where the poverty line is a constant threat, where women do as their told, and where even that subjugating rule plays second fiddle to a criminal code which deliberates viciously on anyone seen to cross the line and whisper into a lawman's ear.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is fending for her two younger siblings, and a mother who is mentally arrested. Her father, Jessop, has been arrested for his role in the manufacture of crank. He is not the only one operating a lab cooking up illegal drugs, there is a tacit admission that nearly everyone in this backwater society is involved, in one way or another, with little else other than timber and cattle to make money on. Jessop made bail using the property as collateral but has since done a disappearing act which carries the threat of turning the rest of the family out on the street unless he makes it to court. The vanishing act has all the signs of some permanency and with ten days to go to that court appearance Ree finds herself taking up the additional mantle of detective.

Working alongside is as ever the no-no, so she goes it alone, across terrain that is large and without her own transport. It makes for an unconventional detective as she is never strictly aware that she is acting as one. If anything, she sees herself as a hunter. But she is a detective and one that has to cadge lifts and overcome other social barriers that the usual mystery story would be impatient with. Her challenging of societal mores and the institutionalised misogyny (hardly new to detective fiction though that may be, it's transposition into this down-at-heel environment makes it more pronounced) makes for a more interesting investigation. Despite the attitude of men towards the women in Winter's Bone, the wives, daughters and girlfriends do not come away cowed but are depicted as all the stronger and as mighty as the men in their own way; swaying decisions, taking matters into their own violent ends, taking risks to say and do things that they, at the same time are told that they cannot do.

Decisions often exclude men. When Ree cannot afford to feed the horse, she turns to the kindly female neighbour next door, and the husband is not consulted. When Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) tells her to keep her nose out of men's business, his wife slips her some money on top of the few notes Teardrop has thrown at her to stay home. Her sister Gail (Lauren Sweetser) defies the father of her child to later join her in the four-wheel drive and chauffeur her to interview subjects and investigate hot spots. Thump Milton's granddaughter goes off the record to point Ree in his scary direction, and Thump's daughter, Merab (Dale Dickey) acts pre-emptively on Thump's behalf and seemingly has a continuing, important off-screen role in influencing family decisions.

The story runs constantly against expectations, the investigation palpably slow to begin with and the threat of harm carefully offset with the threat to the family domestic situation. When the bail man visits the property following the passing the deadline, recognising the stubborn and committed young woman's predicament, rather than press the fear button and prepare her for hand over the property, he provides her with the out... if she can come up with the dead body, then the debt is settled.

Jessop is almost certainly dead but the reason for why, the identity of the killer and the location of the body are going to be hard to come by. She risks her life by returning to Thump Milton's and the womenfolk give her a severe beating. But what might befall the family is too much for her to lose and she finally informs them of that. I have read it synopsised that at this point Thump is pondering whether to kill her or not but once the bruised and broken Ree has explained her predicament and that she does not want to know the who and the why of it, just the location of the body, his expression belies a softer decision.

This is confirmed in an outtake in which Thump berates the family for beating the girl up without the full story. Instead the film allows Teardrop to become involved again, taking responsibility for the girl and answering for it personally with his own carcass if she steps out of line once more. They try to locate the body without success, nor with little real expectation of success. It is Merab and her sisters who turn up on the porch with a solution that benefits all.

Shot on a Red camera the film perfectly captures the brown wintry backdrop, with its cold skies and skeletal trees. The film makes great use of genuinely resided in properties. Backyards and the ground between properties can resemble scrap-yards and households are a busy shrift store jumble and cabinets of curiosities. The local dialect is convincingly kept amongst actors and local amateur players and the musical heritage is exampled beautifully on the soundtrack and joyfully in the diegetic. The players are good throughout but there are several standout performances. Jennifer Lawrence could so easily have been scoffed as too agreeably pretty a lead but she is nobody's concessionary love interest and plays the role down. A child of her society she has no tendency for thanking, saying please, apologising or even smiling. John Hawkes is almost unrecognisable as Teardrop and shows how capable he is of breaking type and exhibiting his range and ability. Dale Dickey (better known as the local prostitute in My Name Is Earl) is in turn cold, understanding, generous, vicious and scary in the role of Merab.

The DVD extras are revelatory with behind-the-scenes footage and a number of unused scenes. Any one of the written off sequences or shots would have made this a very different movie, and though the ultimate message is one of a violent and obnoxious community that ultimately comes together to look after itself in its own twisted way, that consideration and unpleasantness is carefully offset in the completed film, and just one of these moments returned to the film would have scuppered that fraught balance. Out goes Thump scolding the family and out goes Merab sobbing and cursing the girl as she boots the crap out of her. Out goes the nostalgic montage that would have given Jessop a physiognomy while the end film leaves Jessop to our imagination. A cave sequence, a lullaby by the roadside and a supermarket expedition are rightly seen as surplus scenes that would have slowed the film down too much. The alternative opening is too quirky a barrage of images deserted in favour of a delightful shot of the kids on a trampoline in the front of the ramshackle house and a rear frond of veining branches reaching into an ashen sky.

The behind-the-scenes footage also introduces us to the locals who donated their homes and aspects of their lives and samples of their language for the shoot. The Red camera also comes into its own for the day for night shots as the women visit the lake. The crew does not have to wait for dawn or dusk, the camera allowing them to shoot in broad daylight, now with the Red easily convertible into the most convincing dark night. We also hear Granik's voice giving instructions in unfinished behind-the-scenes footage, telling her actresses when to dip into a bag of potato chips and offer them to one another, or a prompting a child when to look and then to stand and follow her screen brother. There is no longer a need for all quiet on set as that too can be removed in post-production. The film also includes an 8mm short film, Hardscrabble Elegy, a visual poem by Richard Sandler, devoted to the people of the Ozarks.



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