REVIEW: Winter's Bone a Little Too Pleased With its Own Folky Bleakness

Movieline Score: 7
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Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is one of those movies -- like last year's inner-city down-a-thon, Precious -- that can't quite make a distinction between profundity and plain old bleakness. The story of a 17-year-old girl in rural Missouri who's desperate to find her ex-con father (he's skipped bail, endangering not just the family's modest house but its very survival), Winter's Bone often feels stiffly self-conscious: Even though it's based on a novel, it has the aura of a gritty documentary, as if Granik distrusted the idea that fiction alone could ever be good enough to get to the truth of human lives.

The movie's saving grace is that Granik doesn't let her actors down, particularly her young star, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence plays the movie's central character, Ree, a young woman who carries the weight of her family on her shoulders, which turns out to be much heavier than the weight of the world. Ree not only looks after her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), with a degree of authority unmatched by most fully grown-up parents (she even teaches them how to hunt, and skin, squirrel as a means of survival); she must also care for her mentally ill mother, who appears to have been driven to madness by her husband's unreliability. (It's never made clear if he ever had a profession, other than cooking crystal meth.)

When Ree learns she and her family will be turned out of the house unless she finds her missing father, she turns to anyone in the community who might help, including her gaunt, coked-out uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who alternately threatens her and protects her; and a neighboring clan, with Mafia-like power, whose bully patriarch is protected by a thuggish woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). When Ree tentatively approaches Merab's shack to ask for help -- she's mindful, as Merab reminds her, that there's bad blood between the two families -- Merab shoots back, with a haggish cackle, "Ain't you got no men that could do this?" The suggestion is that we're dealing with a community where the women bear much of the responsibility for getting things done, while the men just go around doing (or making) drugs and intimidating people -- providing they're around at all.

This is, admittedly, a world most of us don't live in, and Granik sets the scene meticulously. The movie opens with shots of Ree's little sister and brother playing happily in their dirt yard; at one point Ashlee tenderly lifts a tiny kitten from a cardboard box. That opening, as well as much of the movie that follows, straddles a fine line between affectation and conscientious realism. Winter's Bone is set (and was filmed) in the Ozarks, and Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the melancholy beauty of the landscape: There's plenty of rough majesty in its dirt roads lined with naked-looking pine trees.

But there are also places where the movie's characters veer too close to broad caricature. Winter's Bone is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, adapted for the screen by Granik and Anne Rosellini, and it took several prizes at Sundance earlier this year. (Granik's first feature, the 2004 Down to the Bone, in which Vera Farmiga played a working-class, cocaine-using mom, was similarly acclaimed.) Winter's Bone is striving to tell a story that's rooted, in some way, in real life. Still, I'm always a little nervous when a filmmaker shows us overweight people who may or may not be missing significant teeth, wearing battered fleece pullovers or rumpled plaid shirts flung over dirty T-shirts. I'm not saying people don't ever look like that in real life; it's simply that those conventions are too often used to denote a filmmaker's idea of real life. Clearly, Granik doesn't intend to condescend to her characters. But there's no getting around the fact that to her they represent a mysterious "other," mountain people with customs unto themselves, and too often in Winter's Bone, they come off more as symbols than as human beings.

It doesn't help that the language that flows out of their mouths often sounds less like the way people really talk than like screenwriter-ese. Explaining to her best friend (played, with appealing sharpness, by Lauren Sweetser) why a neighboring family is willing to adopt Sonny but not Ashlee, Ree says, "She don't shine for them." Oh, those country people, with their simple ways! Poetry flows from their lips even when they aint a-lookin'.

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Comments

  • Rishi says:

    [DELETED]

  • Hey, Rishi, your rudeness and insensitivity aren't welcome here. If you want to take issue with SZ's points like an adult, do so. I won't tolerate personal attacks.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    "In fact, one of the things Winter’s Bone captures best is the generosity of people who often don’t have much themselves — Granik doesn’t present that kind of generosity as a pleasant surprise, but as a given."
    To some of this, this isn't an example of capturing what is true, but once again, more primitivism -- the cruelty in not really wanting to look straight at the "other." More true to life, from what I've known, is what is actually hinted at when Mother Marsh gives away her big turkey dinners to even poorer families in "Little Woman," namely: it's not about helping other people, but about the strange pleasure and even feeling of empowerment you (or rather warped, masochistic people) get when you deprive yourself to the point of real self-harm. Not generosity or significant attendance (to others), but pleasure (to self), through sacrifice, is the norm for love-starved, impoverished people. Look closer.

  • Ginger says:

    Thanks for you review. It's reassuring I'm not alone in my dissent from the masses of adoring critics. I, quite frankly, cannot believe this film has escaped such very obvious criticisms. Is that just it, though...they think this film somehow transcends it all?

  • luxoneiric says:

    regarding the comments about "screenwriterese": I live in the Arkansas Ozarks, and people around here really do talk like that. There aren't many films that take place in the Ozarks, but this is one of the more authentic I have seen. Obviously, we aren't all meth-cooking tribal backwoods types, but this isn't far off those who are.

  • Sally says:

    I didn't enjoy this movie. I understand what the director/writer was trying to convey but after one hour of watching Ree search for her father and run into the same characters and ask the same questions and get the same answers, I was bored. There was no suspense because we didn't know her father to care about him; or her for that matter.

  • gBangs says:

    Aside from the book its based on and John Hawkes performance this was just a smattering of garbage... in frame. Really Sundance?!?!

  • D says:

    Wow, I really disagree. It honestly seems like this reviewer wanted to find shallowness in a very deep film simply because of some percieved "otherness" of the community the characters are from. I grew up in Kentucky. Perhaps my familiarity with this type of culture and location is why I felt I was watching a tense drama, not a condescending trip into the hillbilly soul, but I can see how the location could be distracting to people not accustomed to it.

  • hayden mcmichael says:

    Absolutely boring an over hyped crap...

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