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.