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Entries in Winter's Bone [2010] (1)

Sunday
Jun052011

Winter's Bone (2010)

The Grapes of Meth

Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is an odd movie. Light on plot and heavy on great performances, it unfolds at the same leisurely pace as its main character's week-long journey to find her father.  Ree Milton (Jennifer Lawrence) is a high-schooler living in the impoverished Ozarks. She raises her younger brother and sister and cares for their mother, who nearly became a vegetable after a mental breakdown. Ree's convict dad, Jessup, has gone missing, and unless she can turn him up before his bond hearing the family will lose the home that he put up as collateral.

Ree walks from house to house in her gray, wooded community asking everyone she knows if they've seen Jessup. Officially, no one knows anything, but they all warn her to stop asking around.  Everyone in town seems to be both a meth dealer and a relative of the Miltons. The drug trade has torn any semblance of family loyalty to shreds.  Indeed, Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawks) chokes her out, and her grandfather's wife, Merab (Dale Dickey), organizes a mob to beat her half to death. Ree presses on, determined to save the house and prevent her siblings from being orphaned.  She even considers joining the military, a highly popular way out of destitution at her high school--as well as a quick source of money.

Like Children of Men, Winter's Bone is a film in which much of the story is told by the set decoration. The audience is dropped into a bleak collective of forgotten Americans and forced to catch up with this secret redneck society, a sort of corn-cob Mafia.  Clues to the extended family's strained relationships can be found in every junk-strewn front yard and run-down kitchenette, as well as in the threat of violence that hangs over everyone's heads.

The key difference between these films, though, is that Children of Men actually went somewhere. Winter's Bone is almost all inferred back story and little actual Story story.  Which is fine; this is more a performance showcase than a movie, anyway, and it totally works on that level.  Everyone in the cast is superb.  Lawrence and Hawks deserved their Oscar nominations last year. She made me believe in Ree's desperation and determination and he really sold Teardrop as the quiet, menacing enforcer of the family business--a real threat to the legions of scumbags beneath him, but still subservient to the stoic and rarely seen patriarch, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall).

While I appreciate everything the film delivers visually and acting-wise, I can't say it's a great movie. I wasn't surprised to learn that Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini based their screenplay on Daniel Woodrell's novel because the story reminded me of a lot of books I was forced to read in high school--books where themes and motifs superseded action. Granted, I learned to love a lot of these kinds of stories later on (I still haven't given A Separate Peace a second chance, though. Ugh.), but when I come across them in movies it sometimes just turns me off. I expected more twists and turns in the story, but as it stands, the screenplay is just a flimsy hangar on which to rest the depressed visual splendor and dynamite performances.

Is that enough? It could have been, had the dialogue not been so atrocious. Seriously, this is one of the worst-written Oscar-nominated films I've seen in a long time. Aside from a couple of scenes, it felt like Winter's Bone had been written by Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies. There are other ways to tell an audience that characters are related to each other besides gems like:

"But he's your only brother!"

"Well, you know, as cousins, we should..."

"I know he's our grandfather, but..."

The film is packed with distractingly bad writing, and the actors deserve even more credit for transporting it out of the realm of hilarity.

Call this a mixed recommendation. I think everyone should see Winter's Bone for all of the things it gets right, but temper your expectations. Though the movie can be described as "A girl's search for her missing father in a town of crystal meth dealers", it's not as consistently thrilling as one might hope. It's interesting from start to finish, but "interesting" and "compelling" are two very different things. You can find just as much down-economy drama in the average episode of MTV's 16 and Pregant as you can in this film; sure, it's not as pretty or well-acted, but at least the dialogue is believable.