I have a bit of a push-pull feeling towards Winter's Bone, the most grandly-fêted movie to come out of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. On the one hand, it's the rare American indie that genuinely delivers on the musty old promise that there are other ways of doing things than the Hollywood playbook: a thriller that does not by any means follow the usual generic formulas, a narrative dominated by female characters, a drama driven by family relationships that never even considers dabbling in the warm, roly-poly emotionalism that so typically follows hard upon family stories. Yet at the same time, it never manages to shake the feeling that it's a very recognisable type of smug hicksploitation picture, that when it's not busy gawking at the low-rent characters that populate it's small, poverty-wracked world, is rather indulging in a particularly grim sort of misery porn.
In the end, the good much outweighs the bad; though the bad stubbornly hangs on almost up until the final shot. Still, kudos to Debra Granik for making a film that packs as many surprising punches as this one, and doing it in a refreshingly cinematic idiom: while so very many movies in the modern day seem to view the medium almost with distaste, preferring to play out their scripts in the safest visual language possible, Granik constructs Winter's Bone so that the film's visuals tell half the story. On paper, I suspect this looks rather banally realistic, a close study of the broken-down economy and people of the Ozark Mountains that presents that poverty with fetishistic zeal; but the incredible stylised look of the thing (and, to a certain degree, the performances) tell a very different tale.
Either way, Winter's Bone - adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's novel - is largely about Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old taking care of her much younger siblings Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), in the face of a barely-functional, mute, pill-addicted mother and a long-absent father. It's her father, Jessup, that causes the crisis in Ree's love which drives the rest of the movie: he was arrested on drug trafficking charges, and put his house and land - the house and land where Ree and family currently live - up as bail. Then he promptly jumped bail, causing the nervous, semi-apologetic sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) to inform Ree that if her dad doesn't turn up, she's going to be kicked out in a week's time.
Thus begins an odyssey - a trite word, but the more I tried to come up with another, the more I had to face facts, that Winter's Bone really is an odyssey and nothing else. Ree knows that some of her more distant relatives probably know what happened to Jessup, and she visits them in turn, over the stringent objections of her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). It takes her a very long time to learn anything whatsoever, by which time both she and the audience have been able to guess at a lot of the truth of the matter: suffice it to say that it involves the fact that in any sufficiently economically-decrepit community, a lot of people will eventually turn to crime as a source of income, and the codes uniting criminals outweigh the bonds that connect thinly-related family members.
Shot on location - and how! - it would be more than possible for Winter's Bone to turn into nothing but a realistic slice-of-life piece about how miserably unpleasant life is in the poorest corners of the Ozarks; and it's not not that. And this is the part of the movie that, for me, works the least, though Granik certainly gets points for creating an immaculate sense of place. Still, on those terms alone, Winter's Bone could be a profoundly unexceptional, even aggravating movie.
Realism is merely a launching point, though: ground the film in a specific enough environment, filled with enough precise detail that we have an incredibly well-formed idea of Ree's world and the things she's out to defend. From that point, though, Winter's Bone turns quickly and wonderfully into a sort of dark fable, a voyage through a confusing Wonderland that makes up in hideousness what it lacks in otherworldliness. The film boasts absolutely extraordinary neo-noir cinematography, courtesy of Michael McDonough, a remarkable combination of the simple and familiar with the shockingly stylised. Routine camera angles and movements clash with a deep dark lighting scheme and the occasional shot that presents, with unexpected Expressionist verve, Ree's constant awareness of danger (for this is, without a doubt, a most dangerous world). In particular, a late scene set in a boat on a shallow river at night - to say any more would be to plunge into the worst kind of spoilers - is nothing shy of masterpiece-level filmmaking, a flurry of shadows and claustrophobic close-ups and the nastiest edge lighting I can remember seeing in ages.
The steely, unforgiving look of the film matches quite well with Lawrence's outright amazing performance, which by all rights ought to be her breakout (her widest-seen projects to date are The Burning Plain and The Bill Engvall Show). The 19-year-old actress is quite fearless in this role, categorically refusing to play by the rules that a hundred, a thousand other young women might have indulged in: she does not play for our sympathy by presenting a Ree who is full of doubts and self-pity that she must mask over with strength, knowing that she is the only person who can keep her world together; no, as Lawrence plays her, Ree has no doubts and self-pity, because if she had allowed herself that luxury, she'd be long since dead of starvation. With a strong, stern face that borders on the cruel at times, Lawrence presents a girl stripped of every remote vestige of innocence, at times confused and at times scared, but never, ever weak. It's this performance, more than anything else, that suggests how truly deadening and terrible the world of the film is. And because of this overwhelming strength of character, the few times that Lawrence allows Ree to be caught off guard - I am thinking of an excellent moment in an ROTC recruiting office, where the girl has come solely in search of the $40,000 signing bonus, her personal safety and comfort be damned - hit with withering impact. If there is one problem with the characterisation, it's that Lawrence is almost too pretty for the part, looking a bit like a Calvin Klein model. This isn't a little deal (think of how many '40s movies were fucked up for a similar reason), but on the whole if "the actress is too pretty" is the worst thing you can say about a performance...
There's little joy to be found in Winter's Bone - as its title suggests, it is a story of survival by the skin of your teeth in the harshness and the cold, not a happy story of virtue rewarded. Nor is it nearly functional enough as a thriller to work altogether as a genre film (the script makes too many arbitrary bends to be a satisfying mystery). But there is much to admire about the film's creation of an unforgiving world, where only the strong and stubborn survive. It is not pleasant, but as a depiction of a voyage into hell, it has a power unmatched in recent cinema.