(Note: this post contains spoilers)
Now that it's December and I don't feel like a total dipshit talking about awards season, let's kick things off with Winter's Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is up for a couple fistfuls of Independent Spirit Awards, and may even be a dark horse for an Oscar nomination or two. I have mixed feelings about Serious Film People (the drawling, condescending way they talk about movies, their flagrant overuse of the word “film,” their tendency to let liberal guilt boners blind them to the fact that Serious Message Films aren't always that good), but if not for Serious Film People, there wouldn't be a lot of people talking about independent pictures, and the cinematic ecosystem needs independent pictures. At their best they're a reminder that movies can be something more than big shitheaded things where Sam Worthington has to defeat the Kraken to free the Na'vi from Skynet. Sure, at their worst independent pictures are directors jerking off to themselves and forgetting to set up the lights and have a script, but it's worth risking the bad for the good: genuine artistry, real shit to say, controversial/unprofitable subject matter, chance for actors to actually act instead of just running in slo-mo in front of a green screen screaming “NOOOOOoooooOOOOOOoooOOOOO!!!!”
I was mildly apprehensive about Winter's Bone when I first heard about it. The milieu, the tweaked-out, brutally impoverished Ozarks, is one that would be very easy for some coastal Serious Filmmaker to come in and be all condescendingly “oh LOOK how much I fucking CARE because I'm making a FILM about something SERIOUS” (I'm not going right-wing on you, fear not, I just think exhibitionism is for tits, not compassion) and forget to have a story, or worse, have a story rooted in assumptions that have more to do with the sociopolitical point the Serious Filmmaker was trying to make rather than reality. Most dangerously, I knew that no matter how good or bad Winter's Bone was, given the milieu, it was going to get orgasmic reviews and awards, because of the subject matter.
To my great relief, Winter's Bone turned out to be a wonderful little picture, a fascinating story told simply and well. With a cast featuring many fairly prominent roles played by locals with little to no acting experience (ringers John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt blend in seamlessly, with John Hawkes in particular turning in a fucking extraordinary performance that requires an Oscar nomination), it feels organically of its setting, and nary a wrong, unrealistic note is struck the whole picture. Lead Jennifer Lawrence can thankfully stop referring to herself as a veteran of The Bill Engvall Show, and start introducing herself like “Hi, I'm the girl who was fucking amazing in Winter's Bone. The one who takes a beating like Philip Marlowe but keeps getting right back up again because she has shit to do. Remember me? Of course you do. Nice to meet you, I'm going to be around for awhile. Because I'm extremely talented. Now fetch my sedan chair and let me feel the breeze of palm leaves. Feed me a fig.” Or not. It's up to her, she was good enough in this movie if she wants to be hailed as Jennifer The Magnificent, Empress Of Cinema, I'll sigh quietly about the ego but do as she says.
Winter's Bone executes a nifty bait-and-switch fairly early on, at first presenting itself as a minimalist, naturalistic portrayal of a deeply fucked-up and neglected part of the country, but rather than wallow, it changes up and reveals itself to be a noir story about Jennifer Lawrence needing to find her missing tweaker father, who's put up the house she lives in with her two young siblings and her mother (who has fuckin' checked the fuck out, leaving Jennifer Lawrence in charge) as his bail, which he's apparently skipped. She finds him or she loses the house. She loses the house, they're all pretty much literally going to die.
The narrative thereafter consists of Jennifer Lawrence's search for her dad. We're introduced to the cast of characters, none of whom want anything to do with helping her out (Dad is, apparently, bad, but nowhere near as bad as the company he keeps). Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), her dad's older brother, is initially reluctant to the point of threatening violence upon Jennifer Lawrence and his wife (“I already told you to shut up once . . . with my mouth”) but later realizes he cares more about finding out what happened to his brother than he does avoiding trouble.
Before very long at all, Jennifer Lawrence finds herself at the house of the very dangerous Thump Milton, head tweaker redneck in charge, and a relative (as is just about everyone we encounter in the movie with the exception of the neighbor lady, who is damn near the only person who shows any kind of compassion or support toward Jennifer Lawrence). Thump's wife, Merab, played by the extraordinary Dale Dickey (who I think was one of the lesbian aunts in The Incredible Adventures of Two Girls In Love, and was also in The Pledge and Domino) is at first firm but courteous, telling Jennifer Lawrence, “You'd best be getting home,” emphasizing the last word in a way that implies deep menace. Being no fool, Jennifer Lawrence gets home. But later, when the trail leads inexorably back to Thump, Dale Dickey and her terrifying butch country Valkyrie sisters beat nine kinds of shit out of Jennifer Lawrence.
Jennifer Lawrence: “You gonna kill me?”Jesus Christ. Dale Dickey scares the fucking shit out of me in this movie. Anyway, before they can get to talking about it any more, John Hawkes shows up, and basically lets them all know that they can probably kill him if they try, but he's going to take about six of them with him first, so they might as well just let him escort Jennifer Lawrence off the premises. (The whole time they're beating the shit out of her, she never backs down a bit. It's a horrifying sight watching her all bloody like that, but by the end of this sequence you can't help but be in awe of her resolve and ability to maintain when scared shitless . . . this girl was 19 when they shot this. 19. Holy God she's amazing in this movie).
Dale Dickey: “That idea was talked about.”
After a certain point, Jennifer Lawrence knows her dad's dead. Rather than get weepy about it, she just wants to find proof that he didn't jump bail and was in fact killed, so the bail bondsman doesn't take the house (which didn't quite cover the bond, but some mysterious stranger paid the balance in crinkled up meth dealer cash). At wit's end, Jennifer Lawrence considers running away and joining the army to get the money to pay for her family to stay in the house, but the recruiter (played by a real military guy in a really good performance) firmly discourages her from joining up for the wrong reasons. (Ed. Note: with all the stories about military recruiters pulling sneaky shit to get unqualified kids to be cannon fodder for Bush's fetishistic Iraq obsession, it's nice to see a military guy be a good, compassionate person).
Eventually, a solution presents itself in the form of Dale Dickey and her terrifying sisters showing up and offering to take Jennifer Lawrence to her father's body. Their motivation, Dale Dickey says, is to get Jennifer Lawrence to stop talking about how they had something to do with it. Jennifer Lawrence, irritated at the implication that she runs around yapping about shit, denies that she's been talking about anything. Dale Dickey, however, is so averse to the idea of talking she doesn't even want anyone thinking that there's a possibility that Jennifer Lawrence might be talking (Ozark omerta is some deep fucking shit) that she shleps her out to the middle of a lake in the middle of the night, her father's final resting place. Proof shall be obtained by chainsawing her father's fucking hands off (only chainsawing one would imply that dad had chainsawed it off to throw the cops off his scent . . . sorry, that was me shivering, moving on). This, Jennifer Lawrence doesn't handle so well, but by this point, you know what? Let her cry. She's 17 fucking years old and the sole breadwinner for her family, her dad is dead, and some crazy mountain dykes are chainsawing his corpse while she holds his hands steady. She ain't no punk.
The cops accept the severed hands as evidence of his death, and don't give enough of a fuck that Jennifer Lawrence's story about how she came to possess them (“Somebody flung 'em on my porch”) is radioactive horseshit to look into the matter any further. Sheriff Garret Dillahunt clearly isn't buying that story, but he lets it slide. She gets to keep the house. She gets to keep the cash that the mysterious stranger left with the bail bondsman. And when John Hawkes tells her he knows who killed her dad, she doesn't particularly need to know. It's not like the tweaker piece of shit ever did anything for her other than complicate her life and leave her in charge of everyone's survival.
When Winter's Bone ends, it's time to exhale and go, “wow, I was holding that breath for like half the movie, or at least since the scene when John Hawkes chops out Thump's minion's windshield with the axe just to let him know who's gangsta.” For a deliberately paced study of character and place with the framework of a noir detective story that ultimately ends up being an existential meditation on eternity, Winter's Bone is fuckin tense. It's certainly a great picture to show any asshole who thinks independent pictures are boring. And holy shit, if you want to see some fucking acting, this is something you want to watch the bejesus out of. Even the kids are good in it.
Between this and launching Vera Farmiga's career in Down To The Bone, director Debra Granik's already given greatly to the cinema. May the cinema give back to her in kind, and may she not have the bullshit problems women directors all too frequently have. I mean, it wouldn't kill her to cheer up a little bit on the next picture, but she can fucking direct, and I anxiously await her future work.