If the Twilight "saga" demonstrates how to screw up a book-to-film adaptation, then Winter’s Bone is the epitome of how to get it right.
Instead of leaving the viewer confused by not sharing enough details from Daniel Woodrell’s brilliantly specific novel, director Debra Granik leaves everything in, while managing to crank out a brisk 100 minute movie.
The plot is simple, yet meticulous. Ree, an impoverished 17-year-old living in the barren Ozark Mountains, provides for her young brother and sister while her mother sits mentally vacant in their living room. Void of any pleasure and excitement, Ree, as remarkably played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, is an angry young girl. She’s full of resentment, hatred and fear; symptoms having an absent, meth-dealing father.
When the Sheriff tells Ree that her father has skipped bail and is nowhere to be found, Ree is completely indifferent. But when she learns that he put their house up as bond, and if he doesn’t surface in a week, Ree and her family are out on their ass, she puts herself in charge of tracking him down.
Fans of this blog know that, for me, the plot of a film is the boring part. I enjoy films for their overall story and how that story is displayed. Trying to figure out why the director chose that shot or that location. Why the actor decided to play that scene that particular way, and so on. With that criteria in mind, Winter’s Bone is easily one of the best experiences I've had in a film so far this year.
When I said barren earlier, I wasn’t lying. As Ree walks to the various homes occupied by her filthy relatives, she walks in a land that is reminiscent of the place Cormac McCarthy described in "The Road." Ree’s house, like all of her relatives’, looks abandoned. Moldy couches and rusty lawn chairs litter the front yard, doors are nearly off their hinges, etc. Inside is even worse. The homes are filled with endless amounts of clutter and grime. I mention this because this is what a movie is about. All those tiny details make a movie because they convince you, even for 100 minutes, that everything you’re seeing is real. If cinematographer Michael McDonough and production designer Mark White aren’t considered for Oscars, something is seriously wrong.
Same goes for select cast players.
The 19-year-old Lawrence carries this movie through and through. She’s in every scene of Winter’s Bone, but it initially seems that she does very little, which, of course, is not the case. If an actor, let alone a teenage one, can tell you everything she’s thinking and feeling with a single grimace, then she’s doing her job beyond what’s expected. Keep Jennifer Lawrence’s name in your mind, she’s the Gabourey Sidibe of 2010.
If Lawrence is the emotional anchor of the film then John Hawkes is the force of nature. You’ve seen Hawkes before. He’s popped up in great character parts for the past two decades. Roles like the rambling liquor store owner in From Dusk Till Dawn, the comic relief in The Perfect Storm, the hotel clerk in Identity, the anguished con in Miami Vice, and so on. In short, I’m aware of John Hawkes’ career.
So why didn’t I recognize him in his first scenes of Winter’s Bone? Maybe it was the spotty grey beard, or the long, greasy hair he was sporting. Maybe it was the utterly convincing thick country accent he was vocalizing. Maybe it was the fact that you fear him in every scene he is in.
I call it the Col. Jessep complex. As Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson is immediately feared within seconds of his first scene. He hasn’t done anything expect speak, but you know you can’t mess with this guy. Hawkes pulls that off here. As Ree’s aggressively vengeful uncle, Hawkes is a serious force to be reckoned with. Christ I hope he’s remembered come awards season.
Winter’s Bone is directed by Debra Granik, whose last film was the fantastic Down to the Bone, which remains one of the most convincing films I’ve ever seen about drug addiction. Granik has a serious eye for detail, which, even if the audience doesn’t notice, they subconsciously appreciate. Down to the Bone was made seven years ago, I sure hope we don’t have to wait that long for her next film. I’m going to say this for every worthy film this year until 2010 starts to pick up, but Winter’s Bone is by long and far up there for the best film of the year. Scout it out. It’s worth it. A