sun 16/06/2024

Winter's Bone | reviews, news & interviews

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone

Sundance winner is a bleak Missouri thriller with a shining central performance

'Winter's Bone': Jennifer Lawrence gives an extraordinary performance as a 17-year-old searching for her absconded father

The Ozarks, situated mostly in Missouri, are not on most tourists’ itineraries when they visit the United States. The area is not as pretty or dramatic as the Appalachians or the Rockies, and the mining and backwoods country is considered different, remote even, by many Americans.

And while it has a distinct dialect and a rich oral and musical culture from its pioneer heritage of Irish, Scots and German immigrants who settled on the vast plateau in the early 19th century, the only representation many know of Ozark people is The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s in this self-contained world that Winter’s Bone is set.

Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance film festival, and another for the director’s screenplay (with Anne Rosellini), is a slow-moving but gripping naturalistic tale. It was filmed in a wintry southern Missouri and portrays an impoverished community ravaged by the widespread use of drugs.

This is a world of gritted teeth and terse conversations

Seventeen-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, giving an extraordinary performance), who has two younger siblings, has become head of the family after her mother has succumbed to mental illness and her father has disappeared without trace. He “cooks” - makes crystal meth - and has used the family home to secure his bail; if he doesn’t return in time, the efficient but not unsympathetic local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) tells Ree, the family will be thrown out of their house located in the woods, where they live in squalor and survive on squirrel and deer stew.

This is a world of gritted teeth and terse conversations and one where talking about your neighbours - for good or ill - could land you in trouble. Despite Ree being, as she says, “bred and buttered” in the region, she knows she has to challenge its strict codes of silence and behaviour (in the Ozarks you never enter even a relative’s home without first being asked) and track down her father. But when she starts to ask about what happened to him, she puts herself in real danger.

Dee upsets the local crimelord, Thump (Ronnie Hall), who controls the area’s drugs trade, after she persists in asking what he knows about her father’s whereabouts. He’s scary, but not half as scary as her own uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a violent drug addict, who at first warns her off her quest but ultimately comes to her aid when her life is threatened. Family honour matters in these parts.

Beautifully shot by Michael McDonough, Winter’s Bone is almost unremittingly bleak and at times its quietly menacing tone threatens to venture into Deliverance territory, particularly when Ree is manhandled by Thump’s huge sons into a barn that we just know houses all manner of things that could be used to harm her. But the script is also alive with dry humour, in particular lines delivered in the Ozarks’ distinctive cadences by Thump’s fearsome wife Merab (the terrific Dale Dickey) - “Talkin’ just causes witnesses,” or “Didn’t my nephew shoot your daddy one time?”

There are occasional glimpses of everyday Ozark life, too - the bluegrass music at a birthday gathering, the bright and lively school that Ree’s siblings attend, and the scene where she teaches them how to shoot and gut a squirrel. When her brother dry-heaves she tells him, “There’s gonna be a bunch of things you’re gonna be scared of that you’re gonna have to do.” Life lesson number one, simply put.

It’s a film happy to take its time - even a car chase doesn’t speed things up - but one that repays your attention as it develops into a gripping thriller. The twists are truly unexpected and we don’t know until the final frames what the outcome is for Ree and her family, and by then we care deeply.

The film is alive with intentional dry humour delivered in the Ozarks' distinctive cadences

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