A critical darling since its Sundance debut, Debra Granik’s second feature (following the touching drug-addiction drama Down to the Bone) cements her, along with Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold, as one of the most skilled female directors of the new century – even if it doesn’t cohere into quite the phenom some circles are hot to claim.
That’s not to say Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a long list of virtues, chief among them a strong lead performance from 19-year old Jennifer Lawrence, who makes a striking impression here as Ree, the eldest child of the Dolly family, who has already been forced to take care of her two younger siblings when bad news arrives courtesy of the local Sheriff (now-ubiquitous character actor Garret Dillahunt). Her meth-cooking father has gone missing ahead of an impending court appearance, and if he isn’t recovered, the Dolly home will be repossessed by the state under the terms of his bond. With her mother catatonic (for reasons never explored), Ree has to face down the tight-knit community of shifty mountain folk – many of whom she has blood ties to – in order to save what remains of her family.
That’s an incredibly rich setup. It helps, too, that Lawrence isn’t the only compelling presence onscreen – there’s also her uncle Teardrop, played to hangdog perfection by John Hawkes (Deadwood, Me and You and Everyone We Know), who brings an unusual balance of menace and tenderness to a slightly overwritten role (the screenplay, co-written by Granik and derived from a novel by Ride With the Devil‘s Daniel Woodrell – hands Teardrop a few too many gnarled one-liners where stone silence would have done the trick). Individual scenes, from a grim canoe ride by moonlight, to a sobering chat with a military recruiter, to a painkiller-influenced reverie, all seem very much like excerpts from a truly great film.
Why, then, does Bone feel naggingly incomplete? It’s not a product of the questions left unanswered – the ambiguities left by the film’s ending feel appropriate for the film’s turmoil-reamed locale. It’s more that Granik’s emphasis on authenticity seems to smother the possibilities offered by the compelling initial premise. As we follow Ree from one fleabitten locale to another, challenging the locals for information and straining their patience, the film hums with energy, mostly thanks to Lawrence’s endlessly watchable slow burn and the impeccably cast variety of unseemly Missourians. As the film lurches into its back half, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Granik doesn’t intend to exploit the noirish underpinnings of Ree’s quest. Increasingly, the quest to locate Ree’s father becomes one beyond Ree’s control, even as the previously nuanced locals gradually turn generically menacing as we near the revelation of the missing patriarch’s fate.
While the film’s gradual evolution from a kinetic, grim rural noir to what feels like a lumbering tone poem feels natural, it results in a slightly schizophrenic feature that wants for a more daring treatment. It makes literal sense that developments should leave Ree’s immediate control, but it makes for a strangely empty experience that such a compelling character becomes only a partial architect of her family’s fate, leaving the legwork instead to a cabal of shadowy figures whose whims feel somewhat arbitrary. It’s realistic, but not terribly filmic.
For Lawrence and Hawkes, for the palpable evocation of a singular setting and a remarkable maintenance of tone, and for its tenderly played scenes of hard-won familial comfort, Winter’s Bone remains one of the year’s more compelling features and a strong case for Granik as one of the continent’s most promising new directors – but one leaves it with the definite sense that she can, and doubtless will, do better.