Directed by Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser, Shelley Waggener, Ashlee Thompson, Isaiah Stone, Garret Dillahunt, Tate Taylor, Ronnie Hall
It’s interesting that the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit (which was a very good Charles Portis novel before it was a John Wayne film) is coming out in December, since Winter’s Bone is, in many ways, much the same story. Except instead of tracking down the man who killed her paw with Rooster Cogburn, Ree has to track down her paw Jessup herself, and instead of her paw farming he cooks meth, and instead of justice she needs to bring him back because he put their house up for bond and skipped bail, and instead of 19th century Indian territory, she’s traveling deeper into the 21st century rural Ozarks. But the heroine in each case is just as strong, smart, determined, stubborn, and winning.
The movie has been getting enthusiastic reviews across the country, and deserves them all; it’s astonishingly good. It’s also set very far away indeed from the places and people that Hollywood loves to focus on. I’ve never been through the Ozarks, but I have relatives who live in the sticks, and the details I do recognize (the trampoline, the dogs) make the rest ring true. The poverty on display here is very different from that of the urban poor, but seems just as bleak and grinding. “He’s cooking meth now,” Ree says to a friend. “They all are” she replies.
Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Ree is at least as good as Ellen Page’s turn as the title role in Juno, and maybe a little bit better. Not only does she have to find her father, but she has to take care of her crazy, helpless mother, her two younger siblings, cook the food, cut the lumber, and do everything else to keep her family scraping by. She needs every bit of that determination when she goes asking her daddy’s no-good friends where he is, going ever deeper into the back country to question ever-more-hostile members of her own extended family, and she knows when she’s being lied to. The deeper she goes, the darker it gets, as it begins to look likely that not only are they going to lose the house, but that her father is probably dead, and the people that killed him might be just as willing to kill her too. And yet she still keeps going, too desperate and stubborn to quit. Or just too strong. If there’s any justice in Hollywood (I knew, foolish idea), Lawrence will be an Oscar nominee.
Another exceptionally strong performance is that of John Hawkes as Jessup’s brother Teardrop, who starts out as a frightening, scuzzy drug abuser, but by the end of the movie is…well, still a frightening, scuzzy drug abuser, but one with a strong sense of family. “To tell the truth, you always scared the hell out of me,” Ree tells him late in the film. “That’s because you’re smart,” he replies. Hawkes has been in about a hundred things, but this is a career-making turn, and another Oscar-worthy performance.
Director Debra Granik (who co-wrote the excellent script, and of who I was completely unaware before this film came out) turns in direction worthy of her main character: strong, direct, and deeply unsentimental. There was much made of Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to take home the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That Oscar was, I think, well-deserved. Winter’s Bone is a better film. I’d be astonished if it wasn’t an Oscar finalist this year, as I’m pretty sure that (sight unseen) there can’t be ten better films out this year.
There may not be one.
Here’s the trailer:
And, since I mentioned it, here’s the trailer for the Coen brother’s True Grit: