By Jason A. Hill
Winter’s Bone, USA, 2010
Directed by Debra Granik
Much has been made of this film after it won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film and the Best Screenplay Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It also received two awards at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and Stockholm International Film Festival, where it won awards for Best Film and Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Fipresci Prize. It has earned seven nominations at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress. It may not do as well at the Oscars, but I would say most of what the film has received has been earned.
For me, however, I have to take a step back and wonder if director Debra Granik actually knew more about the people she was portraying. Although the film is technically sound and her story structure is strong, the underlying genuineness of these characters rang hollow to me. The overall dark tone of the film also struck me as a little over-the-top and done for dramatic effect.
This film is mainly a performance piece, where the plot is more of a backdrop in the main character’s development from dependent child to the head of her small, fractured clan of kin. 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is the only responsible member of her poverty-stricken Ozark family. Ree looks after her younger brother and sister, as well as her mentally incapacitated mother. She finds herself forced to track her fugitive father, a longtime crystal meth dealer, through the local criminal network after she learns that he has put their home up as his bail bond. She suffers a series of harrowing and horrifying encounters on her journey to discover the truth about the fate of her father, but due to her perseverance her fragile family survives.
There are many things to like about this film. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is well done, most of the supporting cast give honest efforts and the story is sound. It’s just something about the tone and portrayal of the Ozarks that rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps something about Granik’s WASP background wouldn’t allow her to see these people for how they really are, and we can only get mirrors of them in situational despair. I grew up in northern Kentucky and many of the characters displayed in Winter’s Bone reminded me of old friends. In places of deep poverty, things certainly get dark and people do what they can to survive, but people in these situations often lean on each other, too. One thing most absent in this portrayal of the people of the Ozarks was laughter. This one-sided slant on the landscape rang hollow, and it didn’t seem real enough for me to buy into the film completely. Had it not been for such strong storytelling and great acting, I could have easily dismissed this film.
I hear many of the same rejections of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) from the Hmong community, who say that the film’s depiction of them was inaccurate and played up for dramatic effect. Although Torino was structurally sound and the acting was solid, something was missing from how genuine it could have been if the production team had taken the time to find out more. Winter’s Bone repeats the same problem. Although we can credit it for getting many things right in terms of filmmaking, it falls just a little short of greatness because the time and place it is trying to represent is not depicted in a way in which everyone can believe.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.