“Winter’s Bone” from filmmaker Debra Granik seeps in onscreen like a cold morning’s chill that stalked you outside overnight. That’s the ominous tone “Winter’s Bone“ has; a sunless chill that threatens to freeze the encroaching night. Set in the decaying winter mountains of the Ozarks, “Winter’s Bone“ quickly lays out its plot, but its simplicity is made foggy by a dismal lot of characters. It’s much like the Ozark’s inhabitants, whose day to day orientation to life seem simple, yet clouded by some unseen threat; always lurking.
“Winter’s Bone” follows the unraveling of Ree Dolly’s fate as she inherits two younger siblings from an inept pill-dazed mother and crank cooking father. Ree’s character is experienced by the unnerving storm of emotion that boils behind actress Jennifer Lawrence; a troubled determination encoded in a pleasantly naïve face. Lawrence is the driving force behind any reason to see “Winter’s Bone”, on top of a Granik’s rising skills at directing and a breakthrough, but probably unnoticed performance from John Hawkes (“The Perfect Storm”, “Deadwood”, “24”) as Ree’s uncle Teardrop.
There is also the source material, a novel from award winning novelist Daniel Woodrell, whose indigenous Ozark settings are geographical characters all there own. Granik’s film adaptation has little time enough to handle such rich characters, and thus misses out on playing up the Ozark landscapes. This is the only shame with a film adaptation, as any fan of Woodrell’s novels would hope to see more of the Ozark’s plateaus; plateaus that have the attitude of mountains.
From the movie poster, one gets a general sense of what’s in store viewing “Winter’s Bone.” Lawrence’s lush hair blowing like a lion’s mane, a fierce actress, set atop the gray ambiance of wilderness; the boat implying a sense of adventure. Yet, the camera closes in on the characters and never wanders to absorb the surrounding wilderness. The boat, while it has a defining moment for Ree Dolly, is merely a prop and not a symbolic vehicle to that defining moment. Perhaps the wilderness is lost in the characters, people who are a piece of the land, not ungrateful, but unimpressed by its vast tyranny of trees.
Every other piece of the film’s setting, like houses, bars, cars, schools and police stations, seem superfluous to the Ozark’s true nature. There are addresses on the trailers, license plates on the cars, badges on sheriffs; all unnecessary constructs for the local inhabitants. “Winter’s Bone“ does portray this culture vividly, even amongst its grayness, where the Ozarks are a deeply settled American root still so foreign to the surrounding country. Their unspoken codes are a mystery to us, yet somehow we respect them in the characters that emerge from the land like wounded roots.
The most intriguing element of “Winter’s Bone“ is its persistent threat of evil surrounding Ree Dolly, which never transpires. The film’s victims seem to be at fault of their own fate, without a paddle of blame to overcome this tumultuous stream. Ree is confronted by the dilemma of losing her home, put up for bail by her court-date skipping father. The characters she climbs in search of her missing father are a treacherous mountain, yet provide solid ground. Without divulging too much detail, the blanket of her world is torn apart, unraveling a fall into what seems an even more complexly woven net to catch her. All at once her neighbors, her law (the sheriff), her dreams (the army), and her family lurk like shadows of an enemy, that become blinding realizations when illuminated.
Simply put, there are no bad guys, just the rugged unforgiving individuals who can’t escape the roots of their land. Perhaps the crank, the methamphetamine monster that has run amok on the Ozark culture, is the bad guy. With this “Winter’s Bone”comes dangerously close to seeming like an overproduced after-school special. Yet, Debra Granik never preaches from behind the camera; we know the disastrous landslide meth can inflict, but its debris isn’t rubbed in our face. The drug is an ingrained staple; no more gruesome than ripping the guts from a squirrel hunt.
The film never falls victim to clichéd plot tactics either, and its tension is an unpredictably tide of emotion. “Winter’s Bone” evaporates off the screen, like warmth from tremors of a meth-addict shivering in the cold. In this way “Winter’s Bone” unfolds from Lawrence’s eyes; Ree Dolly gazing out into the cold, fated world. Around her, the involuntary twitches of addicts like unpredictable shadows shuttering on walls, as her eyes catch the blaze of an unseen fire through a small window.