Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee, Tate Taylor
One of the things I can say I enjoyed most about my childhood was my ignorance of the outside world. Crazy, ill-intentioned people are out there every day doing unspeakable things to one another. I also didn’t have to think about how hard it is just to get by financially. When your highest priority is beating the high score on that video game you like to play so much, you tend not to think of such things, much less what it would be like if the securities you’ve been living with all of your life could suddenly be snatched away in an instant.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has never had her world perception clouded by frivolous activities, at least not as far as we can tell. Living in the Ozarks with her mentally-ill and drug dependent mother, as well as her two siblings (a 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister), Ree, herself only 17, has been forced to assume a leadership role. Her father, Jessup, a known meth cooker, hasn’t been any help. In fact, as a direct cause of his absence, he’s become a hindrance. Out on bail following an arrest, Jessup has disappeared. This is a problem for Ree and her family because it turns out that her no-good father put up their house as part of his bond. Ree is informed by Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) that she will lose the house if her father does not turn up.
Ree is no dummy. She knows exactly what her father is and what he was into. Where he is now remains the only mystery, and it’s one she has more than just a little motivation to solve. Asking around among her neighbors, who are all mixed up in the same drug business and whom all have at least a small blood kinship with her, Ree courts danger in poking around where she doesn’t belong. At every turn, she is given warnings to mind her own business and leave the situation alone, including from Jessup’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes). But, with that looming deadline of foreclosure on her family’s property, Ree knows she cannot do this. She believes none of the stories that have Jessup skipping town. Driven up to a house destroyed by a meth lab fire, said to be her father’s final resting place, Ree is still unconvinced. She knows her father is more careful than that, and she can tell by the height of the weeds growing inside that this fire happened before Jessup went missing.
Having been refused before, Ree makes a second attempt to see local crime boss Thump Milton. A severe beating at the hands of Merab (Dale Dickey) and other women in Milton’s family leaves Ree bruised and bloodied, yet still undeterred. She has considered all of her options… including joining the Army… in order to raise the money necessary to save her family, and the only viable solution she sees in front of her is finding the truth of her father’s whereabouts. That she is going to find out for certain what has become of her father is no real surprise, nor was it ever the point of her journey. For Ree, this has always been about protecting her family, something which even the meth cookers find honorable.
With the 83rd Academy Awards in February 2011, much of the world who had not previously seen “Winter’s Bone” got their first glimpse of actress Jennifer Lawrence. I would count myself among that crowd, except that I had seen Ms. Lawrence previously in two guest appearances on the TV series “Medium.” What I remember most about her from that night (apart from her spectacular yet simple red dress) is how quick everyone was to praise her work in “Winter’s Bone,” for which she had been nominated in the category of Best Actress. Although it was to be Natalie Portman’s night, everyone agreed that great things were soon to come in the career of Jennifer Lawrence, now a 3-time Oscar nominee. Lawrence won two years later for “Silver Linings Playbook,” still my favorite of her movies, yet it is only her most endearing role. The performance she gives us in “Winter’s Bone” stands as the strongest of her career. She never even appears to be acting. Even the southern accent that the actress (born in Kentucky) adopts feels authentic.
In part because of the dark atmosphere and the shady characters which inhabit it, but also owing to the presence of actress Sheryl Lee, I can’t help but hear the eerie theme from “Twin Peaks” in my head every now and then. My favorite scene, which turns out to be one of the movie’s most important moments, comes when Ree is instructing her siblings on how to skin and gut a squirrel. Her brother is squeamish when confronted with the idea of reaching in to pull out the squirrel’s insides, but Ree insists that he learn how. This scene is later echoed by the film’s climax, but that’s not the only reason why I focus on it. Ree is demonstrating here just how adjusted she is to life in the mountains of Missouri, and how naive her brother and sister still are. What we don’t get from this scene but discover later are the ways in which Ree herself is still unadjusted to the “normal” world outside of her own.