Winter’s Bone could be retitled No Country for Young Women and the point would still stand. Like that Coen brothers film, it is about the unwavering violence of the modern era. But Winter’s Bone is not about how older times were simpler and better to live in. The film seems to exist outside of time and becomes, like the works of Sam Peckinpah and William Freidkin, a very effective commentary on violence and the dark side of humanity
The film is about a seventeen year old girl named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives in a poor southern rural area with her sick mother and younger siblings. Her father Jessup earned a living by making meth. He has gone missing, and the police are threatening to take away the Dolly home, as Jessup had put it up as collateral for his bail money. Ree goes to find Jessup’s friend and family to figure out exactly what happened to Jessup, so that she may prevent such a foreclosure from taking place.
Jennifer Lawrence was nominated (but did not win) an Oscar for Best Actress. It was a deserved nomination. Lawrence is tasked with playing a teenaged girl who is already carrying enormous weights on her shoulders. She does so with unwavering conviction. Despite the horrible things that occurs to her on her search, she never reacts with the true horror. It is all about duty to family.
It is her performance that makes the material as effective as it is. But then, the material was already plenty effective to begin with. This reminds me of the sort of film that everyone criticizes for its violence – but most of that violence is suggested. There is a real sense of danger in every frame, especially when Ree is alone and trying to find dangerous people. The most violent scene in the film (without getting into spoilers, it involves a chainsaw and a body) does not focus on the act at all – it focuses on Ree’s flinching and disgust with what she must do in order to protect her family. That visceral reaction is probably why the violence is so effective. To me, the most sickening films are the things Michael Bay makes, were hundreds of people may be killed at a time but we are supposed to think how “cool” it looks. Winter’s Bone brings much needed human emotion to that sort of material.
The other reason that the material works is because it never tries to be condescending to the inhabitants of the story. I know many B-movies that would treat the Dollys like some sort of Dukes of Hazard cousins. I have almost forgotten that such stories have taken place, and that families have been torn apart in this manner. That is also what sets Winter’s Bone apart – brutal honesty. It does not TRY to be an exploitation film or moralize about the situation. Audiences are meant to reflect on those themes for themselves – which is the best thing any film can do.
Winter’s Bone was one of the most visceral films of 2010. It didn’t really have a chance at the Oscars, but it was still excellent to see the Academy praise this film. Now that it is on DVD, I hope more people will be able to check it out.