A teenage girl living in the Ozarks of Missouri on hard-scrabble land, abandoned by her dead mother and Meth-addicted father and left to take care of two younger siblings, is suddenly faced with being evicted and turned out into the unkind surroundings of nature unless she can come up with a whole boatload of money to save the farm. That’s the basic plot of a new film, “Winter’s Bone,” currently making the rounds at art houses around the country and gathering up momentum and a tsunami’s worth of positive word of mouth.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, a talented writer who’s been churning out books about life in the Ozarks for the last 20 years. The book is great, but the movie is sublime as young, award winning director Debra Granik paints a dark canvas of hues both black and blue. The images are haunting but what really makes this movie great is the cast, led by a protagonist named Ree played with subtle angst by Jennifer Lawrence. As Ree makes the rounds to places in the Ozarks both known and obscure she encounters an uncle named Tear Drop, played with great passion by John Hawkes who exudes both kindness and realistic ruthlessness. Ree risks her own life as she is forced to try and break the regions code of silence, asking questions that are probably better left unanswered. As one gaunt woman who lives nearby states, “Words just make for witnesses.” There’s trouble beyond the chained linked fences and dobermans, serious trouble that could get Ree killed. And Granik uses plenty of folks who actually dwell in those mountains for several key roles giving the film even more authenticity. Every single character in “Winter’s Bone” seems so true to life that at times this film feels more like a documentary than a drama.
As the plot builds the tension mounts and Ree gets closer to both the truth and to serious threats to her life. You find yourself rooting for this young woman, hoping that she will find her father while knowing that she’s in danger of being killed at any moment.
This is a film that will stay with you for weeks after you see it. It takes you into the dark underbelly of American society and introduces you to strange and brutal people who are mostly invisible and mostly that’s what they want. They are outcasts who learn to live in ways that are outdated and dark. They are people that you’d rather not meet and who have no desire to meet you.
I see a lot of films but this one hit me like a bulldozer. I highly recommend it, even if you have to drive a spell to find it. It’s without any hesitation, the best film I’ve seen this year. Hands down.