Young star gives life to a raw tale
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 18, 2010
"Winter's Bone" is a tough movie to love. Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, the movie limns the impoverished backwoods culture of the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri, a landscape of drug labs, rural detritus and foreclosed hopes.
As this absorbing, relentlessly austere film opens, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to keep her fragile household together, taking care of her younger brother and sister as well as her invalid mother. Her father, Jessup, has been away for weeks when a sheriff arrives to tell her that he was arrested for cooking meth and has put the family's house up as bond. He's due in court, and if Ree can't find him, she'll lose her home and her family will be torn apart.
Thus ensues a grim, digressive chase through the hollers and hellholes inhabited by Ree's neighbors, most of whom are her extended relations and most of whom appear to some degree tweaked on meth, touched in the head or toothless. Co-written and directed by Debra Granik, "Winter's Bone" teeters uncomfortably between patronizing its hard-bitten characters and romanticizing their folkways, from the gorgeous musical interludes that punctuate the film to their terse rhetorical flourishes ("Never ask for what ought to be offered," Ree tells her little brother).
As the starkly unvarnished tale of a young woman's mythic journey through tribulation and poverty, "Winter's Bone" has been understandably compared to similarly downbeat recent movies. But the story's unrelenting cruelties, culminating in a gothically grisly climactic scene, make such films as "Frozen River" and "Precious" look like "Dinner at Eight."
What makes "Winter's Bone" endurable, and what saves it from being an elitist if earnest version of "authentic" Americana, is its lead actress. The 19-year-old Lawrence delivers an astonishingly sympathetic and assured performance as a young woman whose character is revealed not through inspirational speeches but through pure, unhurried action and determined focus. "Winter's Bone" may be tough to love, but through sheer, unstudied force and haunting power, Lawrence makes it worth the emotional investment.
Contains drug material, profanity and violence.