One can see why the people of Sundance loved Winter’s Bone enough to give it the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Upon initial appearance it’s exactly the type of independent film beloved at the festival in Utah that later goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. It seems that the Sundance Film Festival is becoming to realist films about struggling people in a rural setting what College Moviemaking 101 is to short films with a homeless character. It’s inevitable, and it seems to happen every year, and, initially, Winter’s Bone is hardly distinguishable from films its predecessors (aka, anything released between The Spitfire Grill and now).
But somewhere along the way, Winter’s Bone becomes much more. It quickly morphs from your typical Sundance character/region study into a cleverly executed, slow-burn rural twist on the urban detective noir, and when viewed as such, one gets the most from the experience of watching this film. From a collection of shady, colorful characters outlining the fringes of the narrative to a quiet, brooding protagonist desperately seeking answers in an unremitting dark landscape and only uncovering further layers of corruption along the way, the film thoroughly mimics the conventions of the mystery noir genre that we typically associate with films that take place in large cities with dark alleyways. In a more subtle way than other recent subversions of the genre (Brick, for instance), Winter’s Bone attests that the resonant themes of darkness that permeate urban films noirs are in no way particular to that setting, and it is in this respect that the otherwise dead-serious tone of the film makes for an enjoyable movie experience.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a 17-year old searching for her father amongst a small Ozark community. Her father has a dense history of involvement with bad people, and if he doesn’t show up for his court date Jennifer and her family will lose their home. Ree is also caretaker of her two younger siblings and her mother who long ago descended into madness. She’s somebody that was forced to grow up too soon, too fast, and Lawrence’s performance provides the film’s grounding center. The movie simply wouldn’t work on any level without a strong, convincing manifestation of Ree throughout. We have to believe that a teen girl in this small but oppressive community can stand up to intimidating men and women of power, and Lawrence delivers.
Carrying the film in a supporting role is indie mainstay (and recent Lost addition) John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, a man whose motives and intentions should never be underestimated. Hawkes is, as always, a strong onscreen presence. Rounding out the cast, Garret Dillahunt (No Country For Old Men) is once again typecast as a small-town sheriff.
The movie slows down around the third act leading up to the penultimate revelation. It doesn’t lose momentum as much as it simply forgoes momentum, switching to subplots and alternative life paths for Ree rather than continuing to focus on the elusive objects of her pursuit. It was when this occurred that I thought I might have been misreading the film, that Winter’s Bone was not in fact a cleverly disguised genre exercise but was intended as simply a realist portrait of the region and the people within it in the typical Sundance fashion of independent filmmaking. For me, the movie is far more interesting and contains more depth of meaning when examined in the fashion of the former. Despite whatever the exact intentions of the filmmakers may be, it’s to their credit and the credit of the potential ownership of a film by its audience that Winter’s Bone can credibly be interpreted in both ways.