While we need an alternative to Hollywood excess now more than ever, the American Independent scene has been leaving me really cold as of late. To me, it feels like the indie-scene has been flooded by a bunch of “quirky” Wes Anderson rip-offs and (on the other end of the spectrum) a lot of “slices of life” made by Rossellini wannabes. The latest sensation from Sundance (the increasingly predictable festival that’s probably responsible for a lot of this indie-redundancy) is Winter’s Bone, a film that falls squarely into the later “slice of life” camp of the bi-polar independent scene I’ve described. My main problem with this strain of cinema is that it often obsesses about depicting its setting of choice and feeling “authentic” at the expense of actual storytelling, and this movie showed many signs of being the sort of project that would fall into a trap like that. Fortunately, that isn’t necessarily that case, but I wouldn’t call the movie an unmitigated triumph either.
The film is set in the Missouri Ozarks and follows a seventeen year old girl named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been caring for her younger siblings while her mentally unstable mother has been out of it and her criminal father has been nowhere to be seen. As the movie starts she is told by a sheriff that her father has placed their wreck of a house as collateral on his bail bond and it doesn’t look like he’s going to show up to court. Knowing the gravity of this situation, Ree decides to search through the elaborate criminal underground of this rural hellhole. Of course there are dangers involved in this and a snooping girl is the last thing that the Dixie Mafia wants to deal with, especially when it comes to the area’s local Godfather, a reportedly horrific man named Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall) who most likely played a role in her father’s disappearance.
I started out this review by explaining my disillusionment with movie that focus too heavily on depicting the social conditions of a location but make no mistake, I do find this stuff interesting as backdrop, I only take issue when it feels like the movie is nothing but backdrop. The backdrop here is certainly interesting. The world this movie takes place in is miserable and depressing, it’s a harsh look at rural poverty and it doesn’t glamorize these conditions at all. The way that all these characters seem to be of a distant relation is interesting and the criminal underground seems to have an interesting code of honor that it’s governed by. You can tell that these criminals are brutal, but we don’t see a lot of their brutality onscreen. All this adds richness to the film, but does the foreground story hold up?
To a degree, yes, it does. Ree’s search for her missing father is a pretty good thriller set-up and it carries most of the movie well enough. That said, I think the movie’s ending was an anti-climactic disappointment. The solution to Ree’s problem is simple and isn’t really earned either; I might even go so far as to call it a Deus Ex Machina. Granted this probably is a more realistic solution to what is, in retrospect, a pretty simple problem. But if the goal was to give a realistic ending, there were ways of solving these problems that were even more simple and realistic (Hint: the wealthy gangsters probably could have gotten this girl out of their hair by simply buying her house back from the bail bondsman). To be fair, this ending is very well shot and has some good acting in it, but looked at for what it is, it’s kind of lame.
The film make heavy use of non-actors from the area in which it’s filmed which adds to a lot of the film’s authenticity. There are some established actors mixed in, however, and most of them seem to fit in pretty well but with one key exception: Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence has been getting a lot of acclaim for this role but I’m a bit more hesitant to praise her work here. Lawrence does show a lot of talent here and she’s quite good in some individual scenes, I look forward to seeing her in some other films but here, I think she might have been miscast. Lawrence feels decidedly less like a real redneck here than the rest of the cast and she stands out noticeably. This may have been intentional, an attempt to differentiate the character from the rest of these unwashed hicks, to establish her as someone with more ambition than her kin, and to ultimately make her more relatable to the audience. All good excuses, but I don’t think they really make a lot of logical sense. This is a character who lives in a terrible shack, surrounded by all the same hillbilly things that the other Ozark dwellers are. Hell, she’s even seen shooting squirrels in order to survive. If anything she should be an even more hardened yokel than these other people, yet throughout the movie she seems like a naïve city-slicker.
I know, I know. This is an independent movie that has some hope of getting seen by a decently large audience. I know I’m supposed to “support” it and fawn over it to the point of excess like critics did with The Hurt Locker last year just to make sure people go to see it instead of some crap like The A-Team. I’m not going to do that. There’s plenty to like here, and yes, you should see it long before seeing some of these bad blockbusters, but this is not one for the ages. This is a good movie with good elements, but I think it can probably wait until its DVD release.
*** out of Four