Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), an unflinching Ozark teenager, hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact and save their home from being repossessed. Nominated for four Oscars at the 2011 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Melbourne International Film Festival: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is disarming in its ordinariness – the director uses few 'tricks’ in revealing this woodlands puzzle, so the pieces seem to fit together organically.
This pared back missing persons mystery captures the menace of the Ozarks terrain, home to the bulk of North America’s meth lab activity. The people of this region aren’t friendly so much as they are neighbourly, which is to say that they offer up kindling and surplus game to their hungry neighbours, but there are strings attached to their silence. In this story of the search for a deadbeat dad, Granik infuses her film with many small moments which make plain this prevailing notion of southern-hospitality-laced-with-suspicion.
Much of their wariness is directed at the film’s brash frontierswoman, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence). Ree is ageing prematurely as she toils on the land and tends to the needs of her two young siblings in the absence of any actual parental involvement (the trio’s catatonic mother sits in the corner and their crank-cooking father is presumably on the lam). Ree has middling success in feeding her brood and is coming to rely more heavily on the hospitality of her well-fed neighbours with each passing day.
The whereabouts of her fugitive father take on grave import when Ree learns that title deeds to their ramshackle home form part of his bail bond; his expected non-attendance in court will turn the family out in to the Ozark woods.
Ree’s early enquiries make plain the fact that the kind of people her father is known to associate with are the kind of people who don’t receive visitors – never mind that they’re her own flesh and blood. Convinced that everyone knows more than they’re letting on, she tries to uncover the truth from her father’s network of cronies, using her innate bullshit detector to cut through the complicated web of lies that have been rusted into truth by outlaw allegiances and decades-old family politics.
Lawrence has deservedly collected an armful of accolades for her performance as the headstrong and resilient Ree; she’s a teen heroine with a wincing determination to fulfil the task to the nth degree, propelled by the kind of desperation that occasionally lapses into recklessness.
From a perch high above the cattle auction’s bullpen, Ree eyeballs her elusive grandfather, the dominant male, 'Thump’ Milton. Having been warned against seeking Thump’s counsel ('Talking just causes witnesses and he don’t want none of those"), Ree’s actions provoke the lower tiers of the family hierarchy to physically hinder her enquiries. Many such scenes are thick with the allusions to the agonistic behaviour of 'the herd’ but Granik never overplays her hand with the use of metaphor.
Winter’s Bone is intricately linked to its surrounds and specifically, the cloak of woods that provide cover for Missouri’s insidious meth industry. Granik pays deference to the curious ways of the mountain folk, rejecting the prevailing hillbilly clichés to depict people with hardy survival instincts in the grip of financial hardship and addiction. Admirably, she also endeavours to restore the musical integrity of the banjo some 30 years on from Deliverance.