SXSW Review: ‘Winter’s Bone’

Winter’s Bone is  stark, bleak and haunting. It won the Grand Jury Prize and a screenwriting award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. This is the second film by director Debra Granik.  Her debut film Down to the Bone played at the 2004 Sundance Festival, and earned her a Best Director Prize.

At the heart and soul of this drama is Ree, a seventeen year old girl living in the wooded Ozarks with her mother and two younger siblings.  It is never made  apparent why, but Ree’s mom is completely incapable of caring for the family. She is non-communicative and just sort of stares into space all the time.

That leaves Ree to man the household, so to speak. She chops wood, shoots and skins squirrels, and cares for their animals the best she can. As played by an astonishing Jennifer Lawrence, Ree is the embodiment of a girl forced to be a woman and caretaker far before her time.

She never complains, bitches or cries, because she is in full-on survival mode.  A lesser woman would just leave everyone behind to fend for themselves.

The family lives in a shack surrounded by garbage, yard refuse, and animals, but Ree tries to make it as much of a home as she can.  It’s all they have.  It’s an honest look at rural poverty, which isn’t usually what we see featured in film.  Urban poverty is much more pervasive on television and in film, and that is what typically comes to mind when you think of poverty.

One day  the family’s house is approached by a stranger, who turns out to be a bail bondsman.  He informs Ree that her father, who has been in jail for cooking meth, used the house to leverage his bond.  If her dad doesn’t show up for his court date, the family loses their sole possession.

It’s a truly devastating scene.  Not only is Ree saddled with the extra burden of tracking down her father, but his ultimate betrayal of his family by placing them in this horrible position is really a gut-wrenching.

Because she is tough as nails and has the balls few men will ever possess, Ree immediately takes off in search of her missing father.  She encounters a dangerous meth-making ring that her father was mixed up with,  and pleads for various extended family members to help her. Nobody helps.

In the last act Ree has to do some unsavory things that no child (or adult, for that matter) should ever  have to go through.  It’s chilling and horrible.

Granik’s film never feels exploitative.  It feels very, very real.  Bit characters have that unmistakable gaunt look with deep-sunken eyes that you typically see on meth-users.  Either there was an excellent make-up artist on set, or Granik recruited some real meth-users for some of the scenes.  You just can’t fake that leather skin, chipped teeth and sunken eyes.

I know that at least parts of the movie were actually shot down in Southwestern Missouri, near West Plains.  I’m from that area, and you drive by plenty of these shacks with the trampolines, tractor tires, and trash piles strewn about on your way to the fancy resorts in Branson.  Granik was wise to film on location, that reality could never be duplicated on a set.

Winter’s Bone is a film that won’t be leaving your memory soon. Ree is a new type of heroine, she may be poor but she exhibits courage and grace under pressure.

Granik illuminates the fact that poverty extends across all races and places. This is a unique look at a pocket of society that has tumbled into a hell-like existence, largely due to ravages meth takes on people.

  • becky
    June 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    It’s nice to read a review of someone from the area (like me). I have read so many condescending accounts of the movie that just irritate me to no end. Thanks for your review. I’m hoping it comes to my area soon.

    • Shannon Hood
      June 11, 2010 at 8:58 pm

      @Becky,

      I know exactly what you mean. I kept hearing so many complaints from people who thought that this was unrealistic, and no one could possibly live like that. As you and I know, this stuff is tragically real. I hope you get to see the movie. Jennifer Lawrence is nothing short of amazing.

      The movie is doing a slow rollout. It opened in several cities today, but a lot more are opening it on June 18th. If you don’t get it in your town, definitely put it in your netflix cue.

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