Review: Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone picked up a lot attention on the US indie award circuit and also generated a lot of positive buzz from critics and audiences alike, so it was wheeled out to sate my unsuspecting film night crew. I described it as “a neo noir, with a twist of white trash” beforehand, having stolen the phrase in a flash of genius from one of the reviewers on the estimable IMDB site, and that assessment doesn’t go far wrong.

The film is set in the starkly beautiful backwoods of the Ozarks, an area of scattered small holdings and mountainous semi-wilderness huddling deep within America. Suffice to say the Ozarks as shown here are raw, rugged and isolated. And we are dealing with the setting first up because it is important. Very important.

It’s established critic shorthand to say the landscape is one of the main characters in a movie when alluding to its prominence, but I daren’t use up my quota of lazy cliches so early on in the blog and that statement doesn’t actually go far enough. The region doesn’t only provide a backdrop or occasional interaction, but instead it infuses everything from the tone of the movie to the local community, which it has indelibly shaped.

Some of the incidental scenery may be stunning but that’s often the only beauty to be found in an area subject to grinding rural poverty and the usual accompanying social problems of poor formal education, endemic drug use, dearth of ambition and debt. This is not a carefree film.

Winter’s Bone follows 17 year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who is the de facto head of her family, father missing after a brush with the authorities, the mother a peripheral figure, relegated to the role of passive observer by what is probably chronic depression. The film opens as she is told she must track down her absent father who has put up their house and the surrounding holding as collateral for his bail bond before disappearing. No father, no farm.

What follows is a sparse, stripped back tale as she is caught between the strictures and needs of two inimitable and disconnected cultures. The locals are weaved into a close knit, almost tribal community where disputes are settled quietly amongst themselves according to old fashion values, blood ties and the established hierarchy.

The police and bank are outside authorities who threaten to seize their land and so their livelihood are often remote but powerful forces lurking on edges of the society. This is a world apart from metropolitan America or small town provincialism that we usually see depicted on film. In fact, it feels more akin in broad strokes to many a horror flick of sometimes dubious provenance.

Yet this film feels real, almost documentary in character. It boosts a range of well realised characters who not only inhabit that glorious grey area between hero and villain – a place where the most developed sort of movie character types like to hang out and shoot the nuanced breeze – but also several parts within that spectrum at different points in times. Characters you despise for their flaws in one scene, can prove unlikely sources of salvation in another. Just like proper human beings then.

As a coda to this review, for the first time I can feel some genuinely empathy with those Americans unable to cope with the various British accents as we film nighters struggled with the thickness of the accent so much at times we had to employ subtitles to avoid constant ‘rewinding’ of the DVD, though the severity of the issue was probably not helped by my TV’s very muddy sound quality (oh working home cinema system, where for art thou?).

So, Winter’s Bone is often bleak, but never bland. Don’t expect sunshine and happiness, but do seek out this film.

Rating 82/100

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~ by Jack on April 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Review: Winter’s Bone”

  1. I still need to see this movie…but I can’t wait for X Men First Class

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