Winter’s Bone was one of the eight hundred, or more accurately ten, nominees for Best Picture in this year’s Academy Awards, and of the six I’ve seen it was pretty clearly the best movie. It wasn’t the most enjoyable, and I’m not sure I’d be all that eager to watch it again, but for plot, dialogue, direction, visuals, and key performances, this one edges out The King’s Speech.
Set in a backwoods community somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks, Winter’s Bone focus on Ree (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl who is her family’s de facto parent. Her mother is catatonic, and her father, a meth addict and meth maker as well, is out of the picture, leaving Ree in charge of her much younger brother and sister. Ree is barely holding things together with a little help from neighbors when she’s told that her father put up their rickety house and property as bond for his most recent court date and has now disappeared. She has just a few days to locate him or face losing the house.
The search for Ree’s father isn’t the main narrative element in the movie; the court date passes and the narrative splinters into an effort to prove he’s dead (if he is, which Ree doesn’t know for sure) and a few desperate plot strands related to it. The central story is the reactions of Ree’s neighbors, all relatives of hers, some distant, some as close as her father’s brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), but most of whom stonewall her in her attempts to locate her father. She’s turned away, bought off, threatened, and eventually beaten to try to get her to stop looking.
You could argue Winter’s Bone is about one of two things. One interpretation a few of you offered on Twitter was that the film (based on a novel of the same name) is about finding slivers of humanity in a situation that bears neither physical nor emotional resemblance to anything most people seeing this film would recognize as modern life. Ree’s people are all broken to various degrees; even Teardrop, who shows the most kindness towards Ree over the course of the movie, is a drug addict who tells his wife “I said shut up once already, with my mouth.” No one seems truly good except Ree and her friend Gail (played by Lauren Sweetser, who appears to be one of the many locals cast in various roles in the film, which was shot entirely on location), and even Ree is pushed to the boundaries of her goodness.
I saw the movie much more as a character study of Ree, one that could only succeed if the writing was strong enough and the performance of the actress matched it. Ree’s love for her siblings pushes her forward into uncomfortable and even dangerous situations; the threat of violence doesn’t deter her, and ultimately the evident strength of her resolve forces her antagonists to change their tactics in dealing with her. Nothing shakes her; her dedication to her task on behalf of her siblings is absolute, much like the Man shows for his son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And she’s a child who has been prematurely aged emotionally by the horrific circumstances of her home life, let down explicitly by her father and implicitly by her mother (who had a breakdown related to Ree’s father).
Had Jennifer Lawrence been anything less than perfect in her role as Ree, Winter’s Bone would not have succeeded. Her character is so central to the movie that the actress’ credibility as a child who acts in almost every way like an adult is critical, and Lawrence nailed it. She looks young, and of course is dressed to look young, yet projects adult determination and toughness in confrontation after confrontation with the irrational, unfeeling, often intimidating adults who are standing between her and a possible solution to this looming catastrophe. I found her utterly convincing in look, in tone, in timing, and in conveying this very faint hint of vulnerability, or maybe fear – not fear for herself, but fear that she’ll fail. I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but either Natalie Portman gave a historic performance, or Oscar voters are every bit as subject to the narrative as baseball writers are.