Sandy George’s favourite film in SBS ONE’s current American Indies Season airs this Saturday at 9.30pm. She explains why the dramatic thriller is a must-see.
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19 Mar 2014 - 11:03 AM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2015 - 12:03 PM

Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance

The steely determination that actor Jennifer Lawrence gives to Ree, the teenager at the heart of this tale, is enough reason alone to watch director Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Lawrence earned an Oscar nomination for the performance when she was only 20 years old and subsequently won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook – and a third nomination for American Hustle – and was cast in the Hunger Games franchise. All in three years! Many actors step up onto the international stage because one ‘breakout’ performance, often in a low-budget film, attracts festival awards and attention from film buffs and filmmakers, and leads on to roles that push the actor out into the mainstream. Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone is a textbook case of this phenomenon.

The thriller framework

If Winter’s Bone was a film that didn’t measure up, would Lawrence have been noticed? Or noticed as much? Probably not, because, generally, a film has to be a standout to deliver kudos even if a performance has been a remarkable. Luckily for Lawrence, Winter’s Bone is outstanding on every level and has many awards and acknowledgements to prove it, including the grand jury prize for best picture at the Sundance Film Festival and, despite its US$2m budget, an Oscar nomination for best film. If I was forced to hone in on just one of the film’s strengths besides the cast I’d mention the way it uses the conventions of a thriller to create enormous tension and nail-biting forward momentum.

John Hawkes as Teardrop

Lawrence wasn’t the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination. John Hawkes (Deadwood, The Sessions) imbues Teardrop, Ree’s uncle, with such menace and volatility, and makes him so difficult to read, that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him. Teardrop is introduced in this clip here.

The authenticity of the world

On the surface, Winter’s Bone has a straightforward storyline: Ree has to find her father to prevent the repossession of the mountain home she shares with her two young siblings and their incapacitated mother. What raises the stakes is that those most likely to know where her father is are in the business of making methamphetamines. Something feels deeply authentic about the tight-knit Ozark Mountains community portrayed and its sinister and dangerous nature. Daniel Woodrell was the starting point of achieving this authenticity: the film is based on his novel, he was born and bred and still lives in Missouri, and he’s made a career of writing crime fiction novels set in the area. Reportedly Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini did meticulous research and got a lot of help from the locals.