There are scenes in Winter’s Bone that are downright harrowing. The movie poster features three women on a nocturnal canoe ride. That scene is the movie’s climax, so I won’t say much. But it’s strong stuff, not for the squeamish. Imagine Tobe Hooper remaking Deliverance and you’d be on the right track.
During that scene, I knew for sure that I was watching a terrific movie, although I already had little doubt. The movie has a wonderful sense of being lived in and having characters that’ve done plenty of living. And it makes terrific use of regional non-actors. There are two scenes in particular that feel like vibrant documentary.
Our heroine, Ree Dolly (a breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence), visits a home on her journey, but before she arrives we are invited in to hang out with the people as they play folk music while kicking back on a sofa. The music, the evocative faces, and the clutter of the room all combine to create something truly evocative.
Out of money and in desperate need of food, Ree gives her younger brother and sister a lesson in survival. It’s a perfectly honed sequence, a how-to guide to hunting, cleaning, cooking, and savoring squirrels. The looks of fascination, disgust, and hunger filling her sister’s eyes are its memorable centerpiece.
Seventeen-year-old Ree is down on her luck. Her dad is on the run from the law. It seems he’s made a life of nothing but bad decisions and cooking meth is his latest. If he doesn’t appear for his approaching court date, his family will lose their house. He used it as collateral on a bail bond.
Ree must find her loser of a dad and convince him to come out of hiding and become just a little bit less of a loser. It won’t be easy though. Her mom is hopelessly strung out on her dad’s stuff, her two younger siblings need her care, and her whole backwoods Ozark community is either protecting her dad or wanting to kill her just for being his daughter.
That’s the plot. And I’ll tell you right now that plot isn’t where it’s at with this movie. The plot feels mechanical, like something trying to please the wrong people (also known as studio executives). This movie is all about beautifully capturing a place and the people who populate it.
Plot gets in the way here. All of the best moments are when plot stands still and the characters simply exist. The weakest moments are slaves to plot.
In an effort to fit in all of the archetypes that need to be present in a “good plot,” the movie suffers from too many characters. And the ending, feeling the need to create a sense of closure, feels just too neat and tidy for characters with still so much messiness in their lives.
American independent movies took a wrong turn back in the ‘90s. They were once fertile ground for alternative modes of storytelling and homes for subject matter too specialized for mainstream mass marketing. Now, they often feel like mainstream movies – on a low budget. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, loudly, “Just imagine what I could do for you if you gave me some real money.”
I look at what neophyte director Debra Granik has done here and imagine not what she could’ve done with more money, but what she could do with the same if she’d forget about trying to cram a square peg of a plot into the midst of her wonderfully round characters.