DVD Review: Rich with authenticity, Winter’s Bone is a descent into a Midwestern county where the menace of crank has replaced family blood ties. It’s also a gripping emotional thriller–and one of the year’s best films.
The danger of applauding a modest masterpiece like Winter’s Bone for its gritty, honest nuance is that such praise can come off as code for “dry and boring” or worse, “depressing.” Make no mistake, in adapting Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel writer-director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini hauntingly portray the cancer that sets in when meth infects a community. But Winter’s Bone is also a harrowing mystery that pulls you deeper each step of the way.
In what is sure to be a career-launching performance, Jennifer Lawrence plays steely 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who’s raising her younger siblings and caring for her invalid mother in modern-day rural Missouri. Across empty gray skies and barren brown fields, Winter’s Bone follows’ Ree’s search for her meth-cooking father–he’s skipped bail, leaving his family’s home and land at the mercy of a bondsman.
That quest navigates the treacherous limbs of an extended family tree rotting from inside. Ree still believes “blood means something,” that her relatives will help her find her father (or his body) and save their land. But as one character observes, “everyone cooks these days”—a viral criminality that “thins blood down” in a community struggling with social-economic survival.
This is not a tale of addiction—meth’s physical and mental rapacity are only alluded to. Instead, the film looks at how the new bootlegging lucre of crank turns rural counties into deadly crime enclaves, complete with fiercely protected codes of silence.
(Still, the most frightening line of dialog is not a threat about snoops and snitches getting “et’ by hogs,” but Ree’s uncle Teardrop taking a bump of meth and with casual fatalism asking the girl, “You get the taste for it yet?”)
In addition to Lawrence, there are terrific performances from Garret Dillahunt as the local sheriff and flinty Dale Dickey as a matriarch every bit as threatening as the men (if not more so). Most of all, Deadwood‘s John Hawkes is mesmerizing as Teardrop—a man gaunt with razor-sharp regret and predestined violence. (Watch for Lawrence, Dickey, and Hawkes to dominate awards talk in the coming months.)
All this rural stoicism resonates not just with yards full of rusting cars and the routine of daily chores, but also the narrow educational and career opportunities available. Though draped in yearning bluegrass gospel, there’s no American-Gothic romanticizing in Winter’s Bone or broad strokes of good vs. evil. As Granik and Rosellini feel out the line where tough becomes mean and strong becomes brutal, characters come at us at first with shocking harshness or smiling aid–but their motives and behaviors aren’t easily predicted.
It could all come off bleak, but Winter’s Bone is dramatically drum-tight right up to its subdued-but-stunning climax. The film makers never pander to the audience, patronize their subjects, or fall back on easy stereotypes—in that respect, the closest comparison would be HBO’s The Wire.
This is a film about an America often dismissed and a problem we prefer to ignore. But more than that it’s an oddly hopeful film about family (flaws and all) and unfailing determination. Raw, realistic, and completely riveting, Winter’s Bone is the best American film of the year so far.
More emotionally rich drama from redbox:
- Precious (read more in Erika’s picks)
- The Messenger (read my full review)
- Crazy Heart (read my full review)
- Brothers (read my full review)
- Half Nelson (read more in Erika’s Picks)
- The Blind Side (read my full review)
- La Mission (read more in my Picks)
More rural stories from redbox:
- That Evening Sun (read my full review)
- Legendary (read my interview with star Devon Graye)
- Leaves of Grass on DVD and Blu-ray (read my full review)