More noise than signal

Winter’s Bone

I’m in the process of preparing for tomorrow’s podcast recordings for theOneliner. ¬†While I can probably improvise something for the catch-up reviews of films appearing over the past few weeks that we’ve yet to cover, I’d hoped to do a little more for our review of 2010. Specifically, watch a few of the better regarded or at least interesting films from the past year, including Enter the Void and Un Prophete. Might not get to them, but I did at least get round to watching Winter’s Bone.

Set in the wilds of Missouri, seventeen year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) soldiers her way stoically through a life that she’s firmly grasped the shitty end of. With her mother permanently zoned out on medication, she has to look after her younger brother and sister on a budget of nothing, bar occasional acts of kindness from her neighbours. Her father has, until very recently, been locked up awaiting trial for cooking up methamphetamines.

This less than ideal situation becomes more challenging when a bondsman shows up to tell Ree that her father appears to be jumping bail, which is unfortunate given that the family home and acres of timberland form part of the guarantee. If Daddy Dolly doesn’t show for his day in court, the family is going to be turfed out onto the street. Well, given the area we’re talking about, the dirt track.

While Ree doesn’t really give a damn about her absentee father, she’s left with no option but to track him down and find out either where he is, or what’s happened to him. In a part of the world where people keep themselves to themselves, do not appreciate others asking awkward questions, respect their own unique codes of honour over the rule of law and own a wide variety of firearms, this is a risky business.

Coming into conflict with various local strongmen of the drugs trade, most of whom she’s related to in one way or another, Ree’s dogged pursuit of answers makes for compulsive, if often uncomfortable viewing. There’s a tremendous atmosphere built of an underlying menace, with a tangible risk of something unpleasant happening at any moment. Indeed, the whole film feels one leather apron away from a chainsaw massacre.

Characterisation is always going to be tough in a story where no-one’s given to talking a great deal, which is perhaps why it’s so remarkable that young Jennifer Lawrence gives such a strong, complete sense of a strong-willed, independent young woman without having to resort to stereotypes or inspirational montages. She’s just there, taking care of business in a very matter of fact and realistic way, or at least as realistic as someone with no first hand knowledge of the situation (hello, me) can judge.

For what is nominally a thriller, there’s not an awful lot going on in Winter’s Bone, but the minimalism works to its advantage. The conflict points that do occur are given all the much more heft and weight given the anticipation that’s gone before them. It doesn’t make for comfortable or cheery watching, but it’s certainly powerful and absorbing.

While I can’t immediately justify my thinking behind this, it feels very similar in tone to No Country For Old Men. This is a far better film in my humble estimation, although I’m not part of the ra-ra brigade for that particular Coens outing. I am, however, getting sidetracked from the point of this piece, which is to say that while I don’t have quite the distance from viewing to properly judge it, Winter’s Bone definitely deserves at the very least a place in the discussion when we’re rounding out the best films of 2010 lists.