Two days before seeing Winter's Bone, I went and saw The Town, the new Ben Affleck heist drama set in Charlestown, a working-class Boston neighborhood. It's a well-done, gritty film that does a commendable job at capturing the feel of a place thick with tension between the embedded townies and any outsider who ventures to their side of the bridge. Yet The Town—while quality work—is, at its core, a Hollywood film. The plot twists are easy to see coming, the local accents a bit off, the ending predictably sanguine.
This is a roundabout way of getting to the review at hand, but important for context, because every other one of this year's dramas automatically falls a notch in the wake of Winter's Bone, one of the most hauntingly powerful films I've seen in ages. You will not enjoy watching this story. You may be grateful for the experience. You may be startled by the acting, and you may be overwhelmed by a narrative that examines the depths of despair in one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the country. But you'll like it about as much as you enjoy a good punch in the gut.
But don't let that discourage you from seeing it, because Winter's Bone is riveting. So raw and realistic are the portrayals that at times I felt sure I was watching a documentary about life in Missouri's rural Ozarks.
In the film we meet Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old teenager who, as a result of the dire circumstances surrounding her, must take on the role of a woman twice her age. From the start it's apparent she heads this household, playing mom to her two younger siblings and caretaker to her mentally sick mother. She cooks the meals, guards the house and teaches her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister how to shoot squirrels.
"Do we eat these parts?" asks Sonny as they remove the guts.
"Not yet," replies Ree.
Ree is looking for her father, Jessup, a notorious methamphetamine producer who long ago abandoned his family and now threatens to cause further turmoil after putting the house up as part of his bond and then skipping out on court. As informed by both the sheriff and bond bailsman, Ree has about a week to find her father or prove he's dead. That's easier said than done in a town where everyone is seemingly related by blood or marriage, and where suspicions among one another run even deeper. It's a culture fueled by meth and exacerbated by extreme poverty. There are clearly folks—neighbors even—who know what's become of Jessup, but that doesn't mean they're going to give up any information.
Motivated by the thought of a lost house and orphaned siblings, Ree is persistent, and Lawrence plays the part phenomenally. There is sadness and anger in the ways she moves and acts, standing up to the most dangerous men in town without so much as blinking. It's Lawrence's first starring role, and one that will surely garner an Oscar nomination.
Though the film—adapted from Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel and directed by Debra Granik—feels at times like a one-woman show, there are several characters lurking on the outskirts that add an extra layer of grit and depth. Most memorable is Jessup's brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), the film's most complicated character as Ree's reluctant ally in the search for her father. Hawkes has played some memorable bit roles (most notably in American Gangster and The Perfect Storm), but here he's at his best as a frightened drug addict who must decide just how much to help his niece, and at what cost to do so.
Granik's direction holds nothing back. It blasts forth with a cold, sparse realism that allows us to feel a bitter, gray winter in an ugly place. Buoyed by a restrained but beautiful soundtrack of regional folk and bluegrass, Winter's Bone retains its documentary feel because it takes very few shortcuts. Filmed on location in the Ozarks and using the depressing ambient lighting to its advantage, Granik captures a place like few filmmakers have—probably one of the reasons it won this year's Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Except for a few haircuts that appear a bit too urban and an "old" shotgun that looks very new and fancy, the film feels authentic.
It details a drug- and poverty-ridden place where no one has reason to smile, and no one does. That's not an exaggeration. Throughout the tense and suspenseful drama as Ree's search for Jessup hits one dead-end after another, the film entrenches itself in the emotional despair of its characters. When, in the end, we finally get a half-smile from one person for one brief moment, you better believe it's hard-earned.
Winter's Bone continues at the Wilma Theatre.