Debra Granik's first feature, "Down To The Bone," was my introduction to Vera Farmiga, and as introductions go, it was impressive. The film is a solid if familiar tale of addiction, distinguished by Granik's eye for detail and her work with actors. Farmiga's natural, honest approach won her wide acclaim, and I'm fairly sure the same will be true for Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone," the latest film from Granik, which opens Friday in limited release.
Granik's new film is hillbilly noir, a deliberate, moody little story about a girl chasing the ghost of her bad-boy father, desperate to provide for herself and the family he left behind. Ree Dolly (Lawrence) has been raised hard, so when her father disappears and leaves her in charge of her younger brother and sister and her mother, who is so severely mentally broken that even the most basic tasks of motherhood seem beyond her, Ree is more than up to the challenge.
Problem is, unless she produces her father, she's going to lose the land and the house they all live in. Her father skipped bail, and everything they own is on the line. Ree knows who to ask to figure out where her father is, but the more she asks, the more she realizes her father vanished for a reason, and maybe she doesn't want to know what that reason is.
Lawrence is in pretty much the entire movie, and she's an arresting presence. Stripped down and real, with a strength in the face of some serious adversity that is convincing. Her extended family is explained as a sort of Ozark mountain people Mafia, a loose network of meth dealers and manufacturers and runners and users, all bound by blood and marriage, and the further she digs into it, looking for her father, the more she upsets the order of things. Women don't get to challenge the men about the way things are run, and if there are question, they don't get to ask them. Ree refuses to accept that, though, and she challenges her way up the ladder, eventually putting herself in harm's way when she crosses lines that simply aren't crossed. And especially not from some little girl.
The other performance that really leaps off the screen in the film is John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree's uncle. Hawkes is a familiar face to fans of "Deadwood" or "East Bound And Down" or the last season of "Lost" or "Me And You And Everyone We Know" or any of about 30 other films or shows in the last ten years. He's one of those guys who works constantly, and he's always good, but he does something special in "Winter's Bone." He's a terrifying figure in the film, even when he's doing nice things. There's a powerful aura of violence that he gives off, and it invests every scene with Teardrop with a sickening expectation that things could turn ugly very very quickly. He helps Ree, but he also constantly seems ready to turn on her if he has to. Self-preservation at the cost of everything else is a major part of the film, and Hawkes does some of his best work ever in the role.
Michael McDonough's cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe'sspare and affecting score both help to evoke a rich, particular atmosphere, and even though the film is modest in scale, by the time it's done, you feel like you've seen an x-ray of an entire culture, an Ozarks "Chinatown," laying bare some secrets and just suggesting the depth of others. Debra Granik's screenplay, working from a novel by Daniel Woodrell (whose earlier book was the inspiration for Ang Lee's "Ride With The Devil"), is smart and informed with a sort of anger on Ree Dolly's behalf that eliminates any chance of sentimentality. I think Granik is a major talent, and both of her small, smartly observed films so far impress me as real actor's showcases. She's developing a significant voice, and this makes her two for two in terms of casting unknown female leads who are significant discoveries. I guarantee we'll be seeing Lawrence in a ton of movies... she's lovely even when glammed down to the extent that she is in this film, but more than that, she suggests real soul. "Winter's Bone" is extremely linear, and there's little about the narrative that I'd call surprising, but it is told with great sensitivity and a keen observational eye. If you're looking for an antidote to big movie summer blues, "Winter's Bone" might be just the bracing alternative you want.
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