Roadside Attractions

Winter’s Bone: Of Meth Labs and Badass Hillbillies

The Sundance premiere of Winter’s Bone was sort of everything good about film festivals in a nutshell. I’d gone to see The Company Men, a big-deal kind of festival movie because it has Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones in it, knowing I probably wouldn’t get in. When my suspicions were confirmed, I went into second-choice Winter’s Bone completely cold, seeing a movie I’d never heard of without movie stars or a provocative premise. And you know what? It kicked my ass.

Winter’s Bone tells the story of 17-year-old girl Ree Dolly, trying to raise her two younger siblings and take care of her sick mother in their Ozark mountains shack. When her deadbeat father Jessup gets busted for cooking meth, he puts the family home up as collateral for the bail, and Ree has to track him (or his body) down to make sure he makes his court date and they keep the home. I know, it sounds like boring-festival-movie-by-numbers. It’s not, I promise. It will take you to the woods, get you drunk on moonshine, and leave you stumbling out in a daze.

Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence, goes searching for clues as to her father’s whereabouts (he may have died in a meth lab fire) through a clannish Ozark landscape filled with her relatives and semi-relatives who are like if one of those Dorothea Lange dust bowl photographs came to life and was always smoking meth and threatening to beat your ass. Her search leads her to encounters with guys with names like “Teardrop” and “Thump,” extended family members complicit in the crank business, who advise her that she’d a-best stop a-lookin, and if their wives try to help, say things like, “I already tole you to shut up with my mouth.”

Authentic is the word that comes to mind. I’ve never been to the Ozarks so I can’t rate how accurate the portrayal is, but director Debra Granik sure makes it feel real, complete with Jennifer Lawrence gutting a real squirrel on camera (they fed it to the dog, according to the post-film Q & A). But for all the vivid detail and a story that builds slowly at first, this is not a boring, atmospheric slice of life. The visuals are wrapped around a story that reaches a climax in a scene that if I were to describe, would easily convince you to see the movie, but I can’t without ruining it. Let’s just say that the climax nearly brought me to climax. Let’s just say it was as intense and metal as that scene in Training Day when the éses have Ethan Hawke’s head in a bathtub with a shotgun in his face and the water running. And it involves a chainsaw.

In fact, let that be my Pete-Hammond quote of the day: “Winter’s Bone knows the quickest way to this reviewer’s heart: with a big f*cking chainsaw.”

Grade: A-

Other notes:

  • Like I said, no big stars, no provocative premise, and a story that’s more of a slow build. Which means there’s an extremely good chance you’ll never see this in theaters.
  • If anyone in Hollywood does see it, Jennifer Lawrence is going to be a big star. 19 years old and all soft features, she manages to play Ree with genuine toughness. She is the real deal.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the balls-to-the-wall performances of most of the supporting cast, especially John Hawkes from Eastbound and Down as Teardrop and Dale Dickey. They will scare the crap out of you.
  • I don’t normally like to put movies through the feminist-agenda critique machine, but it must be said that while big ticket movies like Leap Year are as insulting to women as MANswers is to guys, in Winter’s Bone you have the ever-elusive tough, smart, female protagonist. It also passes the Alison Bechdel movie test (1. It has to have at least two women in it 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something besides a man).
  • I think they could edit it just a liiiittle bit tighter, especially if they want it to reach a non-arthouse audience. But then, I say the same thing about your mom’s pubic hair.