Overview: A seventeen year old girl with a detached mother and two younger siblings travels into dangerous areas of a meth-addled backwoods community to investigate the disappearance of her father. Roadside Attractions; 2010; Rated R; 100 Minutes.
Ree-ally Good Performance: In a different setting, with a different actress, this might be a dark coming-of-age story. But here in the shadowed forests of the Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree is already of age, hardened by the demands of poverty, a criminal father, and disillusioned mother. She’s been necessarily matured by the inherited duty of raising her younger siblings. Up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence illustrates Ree with a measured performance of scolding wit and subdued anger. She’s strong, intelligent, and self-reliant. Viewers from these drug-ruined blue collar towns might recognize the sort: the sawdust scent spilling off the screen, indications of beauty and powerful womanhood hiding under the… wolf sweater?
Teardrop: I think an extra in the movie describes John Hawkes’ character Teardrop best: You ain’t gonna stand here nekkid when this motherfucker walks in. (Son of a bitch, that’s a great throwaway line of spot-on characterization). Teardrop is the quietest sort of rage. He is kinetic violence. Lean shaking muscles, unkempt beard, dirt stained hands. Even the film’s monstrous and intimidating antagonist (aptly named Thump) knows that you do not cross Teardrop. Even though his anger never manifests in attack (aside from taking a splitting maul to a truck), Teardrop asserts himself as one of the meanest, most vicious screen presences in recent years. Winter’s Bone might have been Lawrence’s deserved launching point, but it is held together by Hawkes’ muted powerhouse of a performance.
A World Astutely Observed: Some have been quick to dismiss this film as poverty porn, a modernized exercise in exploiting America’s new noble savages, but that accusation is a dangerous sword to wield in judgment. What we have in Winter’s Bone is Debra Granik’s astute observation of a place and its culture, and her gifting that culture a tested story genre: a gothic detective story. Poverty is a key element of the film’s place, and that creates a certain element of grimness. Yes, impoverished areas are grim by narrow and superficial measure, but does that mean that they are not deserving of the same stories of deep human drama as the rest of the country? Is it possible to orchestrate a standard storyline amidst poverty without accusation of treading into an exploitative position? I argue that Granik does it here quite successfully. Then, at the heart of that, she implants the same principals respected across humanity: pride, family, love, determination. And grit. Boy, does Ree have grit.