Winter’s Bone.

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.


  1. Agree wholeheartedly. Great film all around. Down to the Bone, Granik’s previous feature, treads the same territory and is also well worth your time.

    Re. Black Swan, I found it technically amazing but ultimately sort of empty. Aronofsky is a phenomenal director with great vision but isn’t always able to realize it.

  2. There is a lot more Ree to come. Only this time, her name will be Katniss Everdeen. By 2014, Jennifer Lawrence will have a hammerlock on any role that comes up asking for “good looking Appalachia.”

  3. Portman was pretty awesome in Black Swan, and it was perhaps the first time since her childhood films (Beautiful Girls, Leon) that I was actually genuinely impressed with her performance. I think it was close between her and Jennifer Lawrence, but given what we know about Portman’s abilities from other films and how we don’t really know if Lawrence was acting or just playing herself (seriously, her next big starring role is about a poor girl who has to go out into the world and provide for her family because her mother has broken down emotionally — Hunger Games), Portman’s performance in Black Swan seems especially impressive.

    Portman was so different in Black Swan from all of her previous films, and so electric in the role, that I think she certainly deserved the award. Although Lawrence is quite spectacular herself. Winter’s Bone was a great film. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. It was a good film, and I agree with you re: the central performance. For whatever it’s worth, Oscar voters are FAR more subject to the narrative than baseball writers. Anybody who references Academy Awards in a manner suggesting they contain even a sliver of artistic legitimacy–to the degree that we can objectively rate artistic achievement in the first place, which I disagree with–is effectively telling you Hack Wilson’s 1930 season is the best in baseball history strictly because of RBI.

  5. Oscar voters don’t typically recognize understated performances. See also: Peter Fonda (“Ulee’s Gold”) losing to Jack Nicholson (“As Good as It Gets”). Portman is good in “Black Swan”, but I agree with you: I was captivated by Lawrence. Hawkes is also great — the scene where they get pulled over by the cop might be the tensest scene in any movie from last year.

  6. Jennifer Lawrence was amazing, but the actors for some of the supporting roles were just as amazing. Garret Dillahunt as the Sheriff in over his head. Dale Dickey and Sheryl Lee. And John Hawkes as Teardrop dominated every scene he was in. The scene when Dillahunt pulls them over on the road was riveting. Great flick.

  7. Saw John Hawkes on a panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this year, super funny guy. Re-watched “Winter’s Bone” a month ago and liked it even better the second time.

    “Black Swan” was good but also overrated, the Jeter of 2010 movies.

  8. DeadpoolShark

    Your review is dead-on. Easily the best film of 2010. And I have seen Black Swan. Portman was great but nowhere NEAR the perfect performance given by Lawrence. Should have won best film/actress but not at all surprised by the “mainstream” taking home the hardware. The baseball awards are a great parallel I hadn’t thought of, but I do know this: every person I rec’d Winter’s Bone to not only came away impressed but Lawrence fans.

    Great job.

  9. I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone (one of the two Best Picture nominees I haven’t seen), but Portman pitched a perfect game, in my eyes. I thought she was spot on in every minute of the movie (and she was on screen for pretty much every minute) and if she hadn’t been perfect, the movie would have failed.

  10. I loved Winter’s Bone and I think your assessment of it is dead on. For Black Swan, I’ll agree with the opinions of a few above: Portman gives a virtuoso performance: very showy, very demanding, and she’s on point throughout. That said, the movie, for me, fell far short of what she brought to it. It leaned toward sensationalism and false tension and just wasn’t all that pleasant to watch.

    I’m curious if you’ve seen any of Michael Haneke’s movies. His most famous in America is almost certainly Funny Games (it’s his only English language movie, and a shot-for-shot remake of his German movie by the same name), but his best are White Ribbon and Cache. White Ribbon, especially has some things in common with Winter’s Bone: rural setting, mystery as a device for character development, violence that is fully unglorified, though Haneke is more overt in his exploration of larger themes. To my mind, he’s right there with the best filmmakers in the world.

  11. “There is a lot more Ree to come. Only this time, her name will be Katniss Everdeen. By 2014, Jennifer Lawrence will have a hammerlock on any role that comes up asking for “good looking Appalachia.””

    Don, the problem is that is not what the role of Katniss demanded. There is a lot of frustration with the selection of Lawrence to play Katniss, since the role was a perfect opportunity to feature an actress of color, but instead, again, went to a blond white chick, for whom there are no shortage of roles. A similar thing happened with “The Last Airbender” flick, which changed all the good characters to light eyed, blond haired whites, but kept the bad guys as Asian darkies.

  12. While I enjoyed Natalie Portman’s performance in ‘Black Swan,’ she won the Oscar, as you said, based on the narrative. She did most of the dancing, unless you listen to her bitter stunt double, and put in the work to make everything look flawless.

    That said, I thought Jennifer Lawrence gave the best performance of any actor that I saw in 2010 – that includes leading AND supporting roles. As you said, if the lead character is not believable or effective in the role, the film completely falls apart. But Lawrence is wonderful in this film and more than deserving of the Oscar that went to Portman.

  13. BSK said:

    “There is a lot of frustration with the selection of Lawrence to play Katniss, since the role was a perfect opportunity to feature an actress of color, but instead, again, went to a blond white chick, for whom there are no shortage of roles.”

    Good point, BSK. I hadn’t thought of that, but it really would be a breakthrough for the culture to have an actress of color play Katniss–not just for what it would say about Hollywood but because of how this movie franchise is going to permeate the culture.

    That said, considering the studio has such high hopes for the franchise, I can understand them playing it conservatively. Lawrence showed incredible acting skills in Winter’s Bone and proved she’s a natural for the part. In this case, I don’t think they’ve chosen her much more for her acting than for her looks.

  14. Scratch that last sentence.

    I think they chose her much more for her acting than for her looks.

  15. Jeremy-

    I haven’t seen “Winter’s Bone”, so I can’t comment on Lawrence’s acting, but I’m more than happy to concede that she is everything she’s made out to be. That being said, is it really impossible to believe that there isn’t a similarly talented young actress of color out there? And, as good as Lawrence may be, I don’t know that she is a box office draw yet. Are people going to see the movie on her name alone? I doubt it. Not a knock on her, mind you.

    I also find the, “Well, she’s the best young actress alive” argument ultimately unconvincing. If they were doing a new Bond movie and the best British actor alive was black, would he get chosen? Not likely…

  16. Jeremy-

    In that last statement, I didn’t mean to imply that you would subscribe to such hypocritical or disingenuous logic. Only that many people who put forth such an argument would likely take a very different approach if the situation was reversed.

  17. I saw this more as survivors of a wasteland, in this regard an economic wasteland. Ree represents the last bit of good in that world. The force of her will drags drops of good from people who forgot what it was.

    The underrated performance was the director keeping the correct tone throughout the movie. There was a feeling of dread every minute. Hawkes gave the most riveting performance of the year.


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