Sunday, February 13, 2011

Movie Review: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone (2010)
Directed By: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes

This Oscar-nominated film has been on the indie circuit for months, touted as a little gem that audiences should make a point of watching. The fact that it was remembered at this years Academy Awards (for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor) was deemed a testament to its quality. Word-of-mouth and film festival accolades kept up the momentum of Debra Granik's Winter's Bone

Set in the Ozark Mountains, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must track down her drug-addicted father in order to save the family home. Having posted the family house as collateral for his bail, but nowhere to be found, Ree's father is rumoured to have turned snitch, turning in both his fellow drug dealers and customers to the police. As a result, Ree is met with resistance and violence at every turn as she questions the locals about the whereabouts of her father. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) steps up to help her in her quest, while also fearing for his own life as well.

The plot is simplistic in tone and structure. It plays it completely straight-forward: what you see is what you get. Granik provides a documentary-style raw quality, using both intimate camera angles and wider shots that allow the audience to see the full extent of poverty and hardship one must endure when living in the Ozarks. In terms of visuals, Winter's Bone has that grainy, blue-hued quality often found in films depicting hardship in poor living conditions and it works well. The frame is filled with discarded trash, broken toys, dirty children and abandoned houses. Nothing is held back. Living there is not easy -- for anyone.

I would imagine that few people in the audience would be able to relate to such a rough-around-the-edges lifestyle, yet nothing about the film allows you to try to understand it or see humanity in it. With the exception of Ree, no one is likeable or even remotely relatable. It feels so very strange and foreign.

Going into Winter's Bone, I expected a film along the lines of True Grit: young girl on a family-related quest and accompanied by an older male. However, very little actually happens in Winter's Bone. Instead of travelling great distances and learning about her strength and independence as a young woman forced to raise her siblings alone, Ree simply goes door-to-door in her neighbouring area. She meets violent thugs and resentful women who all proceed to push her around. When her father's fate is finally revealed to her, Ree doesn't deal with the emotional repercussions. The revelation is dealt with swiftly (albeit somewhat disturbingly), before moving on to the next scene. What have we learned, other than that living in the Ozark Mountains is tough and probably not highly recommended?

This isn't like Lost in Translation, a "film about nothing" that was, on the contrary, quite powerful and lead by two compelling characters. Lost in Translation was actually about quite a lot. Winter's Bone, on the other hand, truly felt like it wasn't about anything. In fact, the only scene that I felt touched a raw nerve was the scene where Ree tries to enlist in the army simply so that she can collect the $40,000 entry reward. She just wants to save her house and feed her younger siblings. She innocently thought she'd be allowed to take her brother and sister with her to an army reserve to train. It's a heartbreaking scene that illustrates how the military can prey on the young and poor to fight their nations' battles. But, this was only one scene and I was left feeling like the rest of film was empty.

Lawrence and Hawkes were both strong in their roles as Ree and Teardrop, respectively, but I would argue that neither are worthy of an Oscar nomination. There were far more powerful and memorable performances this year that were neglected and I couldn't help feeling like their nominations were a bit of a waste. Both are great actors, especially Hawkes, but perhaps they will be in a better film one day that is more worthy of their talents.

Overall, I was left confused as to all the hype surrounding Winter's Bone. I found it average and, ultimately, pointless. The minute the end credits appeared, I thought, 'That was it?'  Don't fall for all the accolades, this one is a bit of a dud.



  1. Hmm, I don't we'll agree this time. I very much enjoyed the film. The fact that Ree frequently went from door to door to collect as much information as she could which, in a way, could made the movie feel as if 'nothing' was happening, was not lost on me, but I felt that played to the movie's strengths. It reminded me somewhat of 'The Maltese Falcon', minus the witty banter. Follow the clues, follow your instincts, and hopefully something will come of it. It's a mystery story, after all.I also felt that this could be a major stepping stone in Ree's life.

  2. Yeah, I figured a lot of people would disagree with me on this one. haha.

    My expectations were different and I do see how her going door-to-door would probably be quite close to reality if this were a true story; however, I was just left wondering what the point was? I just felt like I was missing something here.

  3. I enjoy the unrelenting ordinary-ness of this film--though True Grit was also very good. (I found your blog looking for images for my own blog-entry) I'll think I'll dig a little deeper here...

  4. Ree's father is rumoured to have turned snitch, turning in both his fellow drug dealers and customers to the police

    Well that's an odd thing to mention in the summary, seeing as it isn't even considered until a fair while in.

    It plays it completely straight-forward: what you see is what you get.

    If you can say that about Winter's Bone, you can say it about almost anything. Why isn't The Social Network getting the same treatment?

    In Winter's Bone you start off with no idea where the father has gone and also little idea as to why the people refuse to talk to Ree. Of course, they're all drug dealers so they'll naturally be secretive, but there's a very foreboding atmosphere from beginning to end. If you want to call it "straightforward", then fair enough. What you see is what you get? What you see is gritty, creepy and mysterious and that's straightforwardly what you get, so yeah.

    With the exception of Ree, no one is likeable or even remotely relatable.

    What? Seriously?

    Her brother and sister? The next door neighbour who provides them with food, takes care of their horse and let's them use the woodchipper? Her father's ex-girlfriend who discusses what she knows with Ree at a country and western singsong do? Her friend who lends her the van? Heck, even though it's clear that Teardrop is beating his wife, he still shows interest in helping Ree with her problems in his own way.

    The wife of the head honcho of the drug dealing gang is quite cold, but even she seemed to have a human side to her. I've met people just like that (though not in this kind of grim setting) and she could have been a lot worse. (Heck, towards the end she's pretty helpful - in her own way.)

    Winter's Bone, on the other hand, truly felt like it wasn't about anything.

    Just like The Godfather, eh? I mean seriously, did you and I watch the same movie?

    It's a heartbreaking scene that illustrates how the military can prey on the young and poor to fight their nations' battles.

    What was particularly funny about that scene was that Ree seems eminently suited to an army role. She has to deal with so much s*** in her everyday life that it seems like she'd easily have the stomach for a career in the army.

    Both are great actors, especially Hawkes

    Well in this movie Jennifer Lawrence was definitely the one with the more striking performance. Even while she keeps up poker face, we can see the emotional strain underneath. It's a fantastically subtle performance and if that wasn't worthy of an Oscar nomination, I'm not sure what is. (Heck, if this is an award Sandra Bullock can win it seems daft to deny Jennifer Lawrence a nomination.)

    Also, I cannot quite understand the description the other commenter gave that this had "unrelenting ordinary-ness". If that's "ordinary" then we live in very different neighbourhoods, y'know?

  5. Really? It was revealed in a couple of reviews I read about the film, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I'll see if I can dig them up for you.

    When I said it "plays it completely straight-forward: what you see is what you get" ...that wasn't meant as a bad thing. Why did you associate it with something negative? I was just sayin', that's all. ;)

    Yeah, seriously. Sure, some of the characters had "nice" moments but I wouldn't call them relatable. Nice doesn't equal relatable.

    I don't get your Godfather reference and, guess what, people can disagree on movies. lol. I don't mind debating different opinions, but there is no need to make unnecessary jabs at completely unrelated films. Debating with an open mind always works best, I find. ;)

    I agree. Ree would have made a great soldier and that scene was heartbreaking for a variety of reasons. The part where she wants to bring along her siblings (or at least thought she was able to) was especially tough to watch.

    I try to forget the fact that Sandra Bullock won an Oscar. haha.

    I'm not sure about the above comment either. Maybe he/she simply meant it was a "day in the life" kind of story and, whether or not it's a life we can relate to and understand, is irrelevant? Dunno ...