Sometimes, I sit back and sigh at the current state of cinema.
Franchise powerhouses like Harry Potter and ’80s rehashes/way-too-late-sequels like Indiana Jones IV or Terminator: Salvation seem to dominate box offices worldwide despite very negligible cinematic merit, while shock-tactic horror films like the endless Saw saga reel in vast sums of cash with more fake blood than Hallowe’en at Ozzy Osbourne’s house; they’re often about as coherent as the Prince of Darkness himself, in fact.
It seems, from time to time, that Hollywood is simply running out of ideas, trying to revamp previously successful formulae like Predators or Nightmare On Elm Street to bolster its waning bank balances. It’s a bit like buying clothes in a charity shop: occasionally you’ll find a gem, but more often than not you realise that this stuff should have been thrown out years ago.
So to come across a film that is brilliantly composed, wonderfully atmospheric, completely under-the-radar and made on a budget less than the wages of Michael Bay’s nose-picker is a genuine delight.
Winter’s Bone is not based on a series of mega-books, nor a ‘classic’ movie, nor a popular toy. In fact, believe it or not, it’s an script with original ideas, based on an unheralded novel by Daniel Woodrell, and it shows that a little endeavour and creativity creates far better art than huge amounts of money.
Set in Missouri’s bleak, merciless Ozark region, Debra Granik’s movie follows the struggles of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year-old girl whose father is on the lam and whose mother is borderline catatonic. A local sheriff informs Ree that her father put the house up as a bail bond, and if he fails to show for court then the family will be evicted. Ree decides the only thing to do is to find her fugitive dad, and embarks on a harrowing journey to either force him to court or prove he’s dead. The local criminals he once ran with, however, are less than co-operative…
As you might’ve guessed, this is less It’s A Wonderful Life and more “it’s an unremittingly hard life”. Ree’s journey is incredibly harsh, her experiences harrowing and her circumstances unforgiving. The impossibility of her situation is equalled only by her relentless perseverance, and Lawrence, in a very challenging role, is a revelation. Affecting a noticeable (but not Forrest Gumpian) Southern twang, Lawrence communicates Ree’s seemingly futile struggle without resorting to cliché or melodrama; Ree’s role as the surrogate mother to two younger siblings clashes with her quest, and she is forced to trust throughly untrustworthy family members with their safety while she battles for a greater good.
Ree could become a caricature of the ‘strong woman’ archetype, but we see both her tough exterior and a vulnerable heart; she’s more Ripley than Erin Brockovich, more get-the-job-done than stick-it-to-the-man. The decisions Ree makes have possibly calamitous ramifications, and Lawrence shows Ree making them with a heavy conscience. One scene in particular, where Ree pleads with her mentally incapacitated mother for advice, is heartbreaking, and showcases Lawrence’s manifest acting prowess.
The supporting cast largely flit in and out of Winter’s Bone, from Dale Dickey’s fearsome Merab to John Hawkes’ burnt-out drug addict Teardrop, Ree’s uncle with a checkered past and an uneasy relationship with family, law enforcement and the local criminal underworld alike. In a cast filled with relative unknowns, the bulk of the film falls to Lawrence, who shoulders it like a veteran, and Hawkes, whose role gradually becomes more prominent and more intriguing as the film progresses.
However, it’s clear that Granik’s intention is to make the region itself a star, and between her direction and the cinematography of Michael McDonough, the Ozarks won’t be forgotten for anyone who sees the film. The word ‘stark’ has been used a lot in association with this movie, but that feels a little unjust, as there is more to this backwater setting than dying forests and thinning grass. Burnt-out cars, abandoned houses and derelict barns litter the landscape, and are somehow made glorious despite their uselessness. The scenery, costumes and backgrounds are all tinted with a light grey, making the very sparse use of colour all the more effective, and the composition of some scenes, as a result, reminds us in places of that masterclass in monochrome filmmaking, Schindler’s List. Not bad company, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Combining elements of classic filmmaking with more contemporary nous, Granik’s film is remarkably accomplished for just her second feature, and the director manages to depict tedium, horror and violence with equal dexterity. Ree’s encounters with the local criminal underbelly are tense, volatile and occasionally explosive.
Despite all its brilliance, there are a few flaws: the relationship between Ree and her mother, though clearly strained, could do with further investigation, as could her friendships, which seem to have been created out of convenience rather than love. In such an isolated community, we should perhaps have a better grasp of what’s going on, as at times it feels that the viewer is slightly too far out of the loop: while it’s necessary to shroud certain facts to create tension, a touch more background information in places would not go amiss.
Overall, however, Winter’s Bone is a triumph of low-budget filmmaking and ingenuity, featuring an excellent performance from John Hawkes and a star-making one from Jennifer Lawrence. For a film set in such a bleak locale, Winter’s Bone is brimming with fresh ideas, vivid performances and a bright young star as its lead.
9/10: If film, as we considered it, is a charity shop, this movie is the Gucci suit you bought for £4. It’s a marvellous achievement, and the early Oscar hype for Lawrence is far from unwarranted. In a sometimes frustratingly stagnant big-money era, this is a both a blast from the past and hopefully a glimpse of a better cinematic future. Gripping.