American Beauty

Winter’s Bone ★★★★★
(USA, 100 min)
Dir: Debra Granik; Writ: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt.
Somewhere across the pond, Carey Mulligan is shaking in her designer booties. Jennifer Lawrence, with her astonishing performance in Winter’s Bone, firmly stakes herself as the breakout star of 2010. Lawrence stars as Ree, a young girl struggling to survive in the desolate landscape of the American Ozarks. Thanks primarily to the strength of Lawrence’s performance, Ree is among the most fascinating and fully realized characters in the cinema this year. Living in a rundown cabin in the woods and getting by on potatoes and neighbourly charity, Ree is trash and she knows it. But beneath her cheap Wal-Mart t-shirt lies a richness of integrity and familial devotion.

Ree, the oldest of three children, looks after the family because her crystal-meth cooking dad had a run-in with the law and her mother is forever in a silent fallow state. The early scenes of Winter’s Bone depict Ree as a good mother-figure to her siblings – she toils to see that they’re fed and off to school – but Ree also exhibits a hunger to be one of the children. As Ree walks the school hallways and gazes into the classrooms of her former peers, it’s unclear whether she dropped out by choice. Regardless, it’s painfully evident that she is too young to shoulder such a heavy burden.

To worsen her situation, Ree gets a visit from the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), who tells her that her daddy has gone missing. Furthermore, Ree’s father put the family property up as his bond. If he fails to surface, Ree and her family are out in the cold.

As Ree sets of to find her dead-beat dad, director Debra Granik takes us into a haunting story of survival. Throughout the journey, Lawrence portrays Ree as a fearless and sassy searcher. Lawrence is also courageous to show her audience that, at times, Ree’s stoicism is just an act – it’s clear that Ree is simply too young to know what to do in such a dire situation. Nonetheless, Ree is like one of the strong and world-wise young heroines of an Eden Robinson novel: In part from Ree’s nerve to throw herself headlong into the most perilous of situations, she demonstrates a firm understanding of her environment and can manipulate it accordingly to see herself through.

Granik’s fine directorial skills grant Winter’s Bone the strongest sense of place you’ll see in a film this year. The barren landscape is accentuated by the cold grey-blue lensing by Michael McDonough and frequently brings a chill to the spine. Winter’s Bone is Gothicism at its best – it’s an unsettling tale filled with nasty characters (particularly Merab, the older, more sinister neighbour played by Dale Dickey). Furthermore, the Ozark woods set the film in a rather ordinary locale – the unnamed town could easily be any part of small town America (or Canada, for that matter). As a result, Winter’s Bone has an eerie sense of familiarity.

Granik’s dark portrait of rural Americana is far off from the backwoods hicks of Deliverance. When the banjo finally appears, it makes for the most touching moments in the film, rather than a suspenseful duel. Ree encounters plenty unsavoury characters on her journey, but Granik has a keen way of presenting the entire community as macabre sort if family. Granik’s eye for the poverty that devastates Ree and her family shows that Ree’s situation is bad business for everybody, and it’s in their best interest to help Ree’s cause, no matter how perverted their methods may seem.
The strangest of Ree’s partners-in-crime is the oddly named Teardrop, played by John Hawks. Teardrop is Ree’s uncle and the cruel, violent way he has of helping Ree in her search demonstrates the necessity of family bonds in such a small community. Hawkes is extremely powerful and intimidating as Teardrop. He and Lawrence make a most compelling onscreen-team.

As Winter’s Bone mounts to a grisly finale, it’s extremely harrowing, but never bleak. At one point, Ree’s search brings her to her dad’s girlfriend, played by Sheryl Lee. When Lee briefly pops up into the narrative, it creates a stirring comparison to her own blonde who fell victim to the mysterious woods – the tragic Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Ree is no Laura Palmer, though. She fights back against her tormentors and takes control of her fate, thus escaping the fatal suffocation of the impoverished woodland landscape. With the inner fire that Lawrence grants her character, we see a girl boldly refuse to be beat down by a bad situation.

Granik handles Winter’s Bone with the same deft skill of her 2005 feature debut Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone is equally jarring in its rawness and uncanny sense of realism. Down to the Bone also showcased a powerful, star-making performance by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Jennifer Lawrence can surely aspire to such a rise to stardom considering the talent on display here. Winter’s Bone is a chilling, but ultimately inspiring piece of Gothic Americana.