Winter’s Bone (2010) Retro Review – Interesting Naturalistic Film Making

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Winter’s Bone was directed and co-written by Debra Granik and I’ll be honest I haven’t seen any of her other admittedly limited output.  The other scriptwriter on the project was Anne Rosselini – to date this is her only writing credit.  The film is based on a book by Daniel Woodrell who has a written a number of books with a similar back drop i.e. The Ozark Mountains.

The film is most notable for the appearance of a young(er) Jennifer Lawrence.  While not her first acting credit (she had appeared in numerous TV series) it was the film that helped propel her to super-stardom.  Winter’s Bone was quickly followed by X-Men: First Class (2011), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Hunger Games (2012).

Lawrence plays a resilient seventeen year old called Ree Dolly who is raising her younger brother and sister because her father is nowhere to be seen and her mother is incapable of looking after herself.  There is a clear similarity to the role of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games where she is dealing with a father killed in a mining accident and a mother who was unable to deal with his loss.

Early on in the film we learn that her father has put up the house to pay the bond to get himself out of jail following an arrest for his latest brush with the law.  If he is a no-show at an upcoming court date then the house will be forfeit and Ree will be forced out along with the rest of her family.  This propels her to into a search for her father to persuade him to show up in court.

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The film is not about the plot.  It’s very much more about the characters, the atmosphere of the Ozark Mountains and the insular woodland communities where everybody knows each other’s business but don’t like talking about it.  There’s no getting away from the fact that at times this is a cold, unforgiving film that should be avoided if it’s a light-hearted Saturday night you’re after.  As you can see from the image above it has a natural palette.  No make up on the actors, just the green, brown and grey of the woods and the houses that live between the trees.  As such the environment is as big a part of the film as any of the actors.

One of the things I admire about the film is that it does feel like a documentary at times.  When we visit a local cattle auction or a local bar it looks like the director has walked into that auction and asked if they owners wouldn’t find if we just shot a few scenes.  It’s very naturalistic and reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary or that series that Stephen Fry did when he travelled across every state in America.

The other big character of the film that we never meet is Ree’s father, Jessop.  As I mentioned above the story is focused on the search for him and it is through this quest that we start to learn about why Ree is so independent and why her mother is so withdrawn.  We also start to learn more about Jessop as a person and it is an interesting device with which to tell a story.  I’m convinced it’s been done elsewhere but I can’t remember when and where.

We can’t go much further without commenting on the two star performances within the film which are Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes as her Uncle Teardrop.  My initial reaction had been that Lawrence had really improved on her craft as an actor as the film progressed and by the end I could see exactly why she attracted so much critical acclaim for her role.  It then dawned on me that this was nonsense as films are rarely shot in sequence.  What was actually happening was that Lawrence was developing the character of Ree and that by the end of the film was a more mature, confident young lady.  That being said I though Hawkes gave the better performance.  Heresy I know in some circles but genuinely I thought he did an excellent job of presenting a really complex clearly damaged middle-aged man.  He looked like he’d live his whole life on the edge of society and bore the physical and mental scars of his existence.

For all the things I liked the film is not perfect.  There are indications that it was produced on a small budget.  One of the manifestations of this was the weakness of the supporting cast.  There was a group of women who ganged together to block Ree from finding her father who I didn’t believe in for a second.  Ree’s mother didn’t have anything to say and I suspect that was a good thing as she was a charisma vacuum.

In summary this is a film I’m glad I’ve seen and I enjoyed the way it told it’s story and the performances of Lawrence and Hawkes.  It’s not a classic but if you enjoy naturalistic no-nonsense film making it will appeal to you to as well.

For the record – The Ozark Mountains cover parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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