Judge Daniel Kelly usually loves films with the word bone in the title.
Family comes first.
Released earlier this year to rave reviews, Winter's Bone already has strong Oscar hopes through its outstanding lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. Adapted from a 2006 novel of the same name, the film is a slow paced and grim affair, finding no warmth during its depiction of poverty stricken life in the Ozark Mountains. Winter's Bone is more a feature to seek out due to the quality of the acting it contains, because its narrative is a simplistic and heartbreakingly bleak piece of storytelling. Fun is not a word I would use to describe this motion picture.
Facts of the Case
Left to raise her two younger siblings by herself, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, The Burning Plain) is devastated to learn that she might be forced to give up their farmhouse homestead. It is revealed that Ree's father has jumped bail, and unless he is brought to justice and recaptured the family home will be reclaimed by the law. In a bid to save her brother, sister, and catatonic mother from starvation and certain death, Ree decides to make contact with the criminal networks her father partook in, a dangerous gamble by any standard. Aiding her along the way is her drug addicted and disturbed uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, The Perfect Storm), a man reluctant to let Ree interface with such depraved and amoral folks. The duo stalks the forested and icy Ozark's looking for answers, desperate to uncover Ree's dad before it's too late.
Winter's Bone is a dark and humorless slice of cinema, the film's general tone of hopelessness and sadness never really relenting. The acting is hugely powerful and the central story is adequate, but it's virtually impossible to enjoy this movie in the traditional sense. Everything from the deranged supporting characters to the film's frosty visual palette exude an aura of despair, director Debra Granik clearly focused on painting a tragic portrait of life in this part of the world.
Jennifer Lawrence is breathtakingly convincing as Ree, the rather inexperienced actress handing in a performance of mesmerizing honesty. Lawrence understands the character, balancing a false wall of strength and bravado with a tender and uncertain inner sense of turmoil. This is a complex performance which consistently reeks of intensity, the actress forcing emotional reactions that most screen veterans probably couldn't muster. If Winter's Bone is a clear indication of where Lawrence's career is going she had better invest in a sturdy shelving unit, because she's going to need it for a plethora of future awards success. She's the beating heart that constantly keeps this project engaging, and helps even out the picture's depressing exploration of Ozark life.
The supporting turns are very robust, especially John Hawkes who makes Teardrop sympathetic, whilst at the same time maintaining an air of threat. Winter's Bone does a decent job of creating a feeling of mistrust, as the story propels forward it becomes hard to fathom who to value as a friend and who to be wary of as an enemy. Granik highlights this inherent uneasiness well with her cinematography, an atmospheric job filled with an austere soullessness, lacking in color or any semblance of inviting comfort.
Winter's Bone is a quiet piece, Granik filling many moments with a stillness and poignant sense of tragedy. The soundtrack doesn't kick in too often; instead, the picture seems to be keen on displaying an impending sense of silent doom. The central story is ok, but possibly not as thrilling and original as the filmmakers had initially envisioned. The narrative beats aren't exactly surprising, and it's possible that the film is a little overstuffed with drug addled freaks. From time to time it does become somewhat tough to distinguish one background character from another. The plot is tough going, its blend of basic storytelling and unending misery rendering the picture an exhausting journey. Essentially it is Lawrence's magnificent turn that keeps viewers onboard; otherwise Winter's Bone would struggle to remain a watchable commodity, the project's coldness an undeniable turnoff at certain junctures.
The Blu-Ray looks about as good as it possibly could, the low budget and subdued style of the picture not exactly the sort of visual treat Hi-Def was invented for. Detail is solid, but the mellow look of the movie prevents Blu-Ray from delivering a transfer of any real vibrancy or clarity. The audio is also perfectly fine, but then again a film that deals as regularly in whispers as Winter's Bone isn't exactly what subwoofers were designed for. It's a pretty unremarkable technical release, but seeing as that's more down to the limitations of the actual film than anything else, I'm going to give Lionsgate a pass. The extra content is headlined by a fascinating director's commentary and beefy making off. Granik delves deep into the filmmaking process during her chatty talk track, whilst the 45 minute making off assesses the troubles that can hinder low budget filming quite perfectly. Both of these features are worth a watch. A roster of deleted material and an alternate opening are included, alongside a curious and melodic short called Hardscrabble Elegy. It's an odd piece, but one that exhibits a trippy and unsuspecting beauty. It lasts roughly 3 minutes, so it isn't a big time commitment.
In its entirety Winter's Bone isn't the masterpiece I was semi-expecting. It's a well made film, but not one I'll be returning to in the near future. On the other hand, you should believe everything you hear about Lawrence's performance; it's a sublimely affecting bit of work.
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