“Damn, these are some hard folks.”
At some point during Winter’s Bone – a movie set deep in the Ozarks – those words came out of my mouth, spoken aloud to no one in particular.
It was an expression of awe and appreciation, as well as a comment on the characters in director Debra Granik’s unadorned foray into life at a cruel extreme.
Set in rural Missouri, Winter’s Bone takes us into an environment of degrading poverty, dangerous meth labs, frightening patriarchy, demanding codes of silence and deadly feuds. I wouldn’t say that the movie is about being poor in America, though: It's about being isolated outside the mainstream in an area where blood too easily can be spilled and sympathy is hard to come by.
Down to the Bone, Granik's first feature, focused on a supermarket cashier (Vera Farmiga) who struggled with drug addiction. That movie bypassed social criticism as it attempted to get at something primal and raw, an ambition more fully achieved in Winter's Bone. (And, yes, it's time Granik opted for a feature with a title that makes no reference to any calcified body part.)
For all its grim realism, Winter’s Bone leaves you awestruck, mostly because it contains one of the finest and least ingratiating performances of the year.
Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year-old actress, portrays Rees Dolly, a 17-year-old whose father may have skipped out on bail after being arrested for “cooking” meth. Forfeiture of bond might mean losing the family house, one of the few anchors in Rees’ turbulent life.
Rees is one of those kids who've been asked to do too much. She takes care of her two younger siblings and a mother who’s suffering from mental damage so severe, she’s practically comatose. Rees constantly works at the outer limit of her resources.
Much of the movie centers on Rees’ efforts to locate her father. If he turns up, the bail bondsman won't seize the family home. As Rees moves through her story, Lawrence takes her way beyond hardscrabble clichés. Here’s a character of astonishing determination, a young woman who can’t afford to let her guard down. Lawrence brings her to life with terrifying verisimilitude.
I say “terrifying” not because Rees is scary, but because Lawrence’s portrayal feels so right and true, it’s almost frightening.
Beautifully cast and tightly directed, Winter’s Bone takes a number of surprising turns, some of them in the way it portrays its characters. As Rees’ Uncle Teardrop, John Hawkes exposes more depth and complexity than we initially could have imagined.
Working from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Granik finds defiance and fiber in characters who presumably have endured years of getting by and living on the fringe. These are insular people who make their own rules and don’t give much of a damn what anyone else thinks.
All of this leads to scenes of amazing power – Rees confronting a local powerbroker in hopes of getting help in saving her home or speaking with an Army recruiter and revealing how little she really understands about the world beyond her immediate environment. That environment presents too many urgent problems to allow for much by the way of education. The advice Rees receives from a well-meaning recruiter is so out of touch with her circumstances that it's almost laughable.
Country music reveals a tender side to some of the characters, but Winter's Bone is not a glorified portrait of rural life or a collection of museum-quality local color. It’s a staunch and sobering drama about lives that only can be called fierce.
When there’s forgiveness and compassion in this world – and there is -- it’s almost an exception to long-established rules, and it comes with a price. Among these rural people, no words seem to be more descriptive than those that have been widely used in another context: Don’t ask; don’t tell.
Don’t ask too many questions or tell too many tales. Just endure.