Everyday is a challenge for 17-year-old Ree. Her mama lost her mind; daddy is a meth chef; she has two younger siblings that need raising, and she lives in the bitter cold of the Missouri Ozarks. It’s a tall order just to wake up in the morning, but Ree accepts her predicament without objection. She’s carved a manageable life out of nothing with help from no one. She makes sure her brother and sister get to school. She gives her mama the right pills. She even skins and boils a squirrel when the fridge runs dry. As portrayed by up and comer Jennifer Lawrence, Ree is imbued with a tough as nails exterior and a subtle yearning just behind her eyes.
But, this is not a story about rising above so much as keeping from being dragged under. Early on, Ree’s father skips bail and goes missing, but not before putting their house, Ree’s one constant, up for bond. If Ree doesn’t find her deadbeat dad, dead or alive, she’ll be homeless and far worse off than she already was. The film then becomes a downbeat mystery, as Ree plays junior detective looking for dear old dad.
Ree lives in a small community, where almost everyone is marginally related, but the bloodlines do not run deep. She encounters nothing but roadblocks on her journey, in the form of either apathy or secrecy. Based on a novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is small but effective. There’s a great sense of unease coursing through every inquiry Ree conducts. The film has an appropriately gray look. If their was color somewhere, I don’t remember it.
It all ends with a whimper, after a climax that was meant to be harrowing but I found unintentionally comical. There was also a curious dream sequence involving chainsaws and squirrels that seemed unnecessary and out-of-place. But, there’s still a lot of good drama and an interesting take on how far one will go for survival. However, the real reason to see this movie is the two lead performances. I already mentioned Jennifer Lawrence as the determined Ree. She’s not really smart or naive, just out of options. She has one scene where she breaks down and pleads for advice. It’s only a moment and then back to being tough, but it’s heartbreaking, and precisely realized by an astonishing young actress.
And then there’s the underused character actor, John Hawkes. You might remember him as Sol Star on Deadwood, and here he is given his most substantial role yet as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. Hawkes is blessed with a face that appears worn down and beat up, as well as an unassuming scrawny physique that implies weakness. Betraying his appearance, Hawke’s Teardrop is an unexpectedly towering presence. He is scary and intimidating, but possibly the only person Ree can trust. As we learn more about this treacherous man, Hawkes brings us closer to his character, showing us a dimension that’s hard to convey. I wouldn’t say you root for him, but by the end you understand Teardrop and that’s all thanks to John Hawkes’ remarkable performance.
The film could’ve used a little more punch in the end, and the bleak atmosphere is not terribly inviting, but thanks to the two gritty leads and the slow burn mystery, I’d call this a mild success.
Note – 2010 Winner of two Sundance film festival awards: the grand jury prize, and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award.