The Sundance Film Festival has always offered a friendly home for naturalistic, rural/small-town-set family dramas with strong suspense/thriller elements; think Ulee’s Gold and last year’s Frozen River. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — winner of the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance — continues that tradition, improving upon it in some ways but also coming on a little too strong.
[Read Jason Gargano's interview with Granik here.]
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, it tells of 17-year-old backwoods Ozarks girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who needs to get her missing meth-cooking father to a court date or her family will lose their log-cabin-style home because he jumped bail. Because her mother has had an apparent breakdown, it’s up to Ree to take care of a younger brother and sister.
She could also save the homestead, alternately, by finding proof dad has died — maybe in a messy squabble with other drug dealers, of whom the picturesque but impoverished Ozarks has its share.
The film manages well at incorporating an insightfully sociological sense of place yet not getting bogged down by it. As Ree’s search for her father quickly takes hold, putting her in contact (and conflict) with some very tough-looking (and haggard-looking) adults, the suspense elements rise. Granik — who also co-wrote the screenplay — moves the action and terse dialogue around quickly and economically; you have to stay alert to keep abreast of what’s happening. And the characters are never cheap stereotypes — even the meanest are rendered with subtlety.
Lawrence, who has a refreshing fresh-scrubbed innocence to match her character’s spunk and grit, gets some strong support from John Hawkes, who plays her dangerous uncle Teardrop with the ferociousness yet smartness of a young Harry Dean Stanton.
But for all the emphasis on naturalism, the world depicted here seems too cut off from the rest of America to feel totally authentic. That’s brought home in a brilliant scene when Ree tries to enlist with a wise military recruiter — is this the only contact with the greater government (other than a small-town police officer) that she has? Her total backwoods isolation doesn’t quite ring true for our modern times. Grade: B-plus
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