bill bodkin looks at Winter’s Bone, one of the year’s undersung contenders …
Every year, the Oscars nominate an actor or actress from a little-seen independent film. Melissa Leo from Frozen River in ’09, Peter O’Toole in Venus in ’07 and the majority of actors in ’06.
Now, with the advent of 10 Best Picture nominations, little-seen indie flicks can join the ranks of the big budget epics, the high-brow British dramas and the gritty crime dramas.
In 2011, that film is Winter’s Bone — and although you may not have seen or even heard of it, the movie is worth every accolade.
Winter’s Bone takes place in the rural, sparse and unforgiving backwoods of the Ozark Mountains, where Young Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is informed by the local sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) that if her father does not show up for his court date, the family home, which daddy dearest put up as collateral for bail, will be lost.
Ree, despite being in her tender teenage years, is the man of the house. Her mother is a state of near catatonic depression, the absent father is a drug dealer and meth lab cook and her siblings are too young to fend for themselves. So she does the only thing she can think of: navigate her way through the intense, incestuous and vicious world of the Ozark crime world.
The movie unfolds in pure film noir fashion. It’s a slow-building, slow-burning and intense journey. Young Ree is beaten down both literally and figuratively by a slew of shady and unhelpful characters who rule the roost on this unkind and frigid landscape.
What makes Winter’s Bone stand out from your traditional film noir is its setting. We’re used to noirs taking place in the dark, rainy alleys of the big city. Here, we’re traversing the uncharted territory of the Ozarks; a land that hasn’t been caught film since the days of the Ma And Pa Kettle films. It’s fascinating to see the underworld of an area that America has seemingly forgotten — dismissed as a backwoods country with backwards people. Yet, here we are exposed to what is in essence the hillbilly mafia and their meth land operations — it’s a new, strange world that draws us as if it were a character in the film.
While geography of the film piques our interest, it’s two performances, both Oscar nominated, that make Winter’s Bone so good.
As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence is excellent. She’s the hard boiled detective that actors like Bogart played in all those classic black and whites. Yet, despite her hard exterior, she commands so much sympathy. She’s not an older, tough man like Bogey; she’s teenage girl who’s sacrificed her developing years in order to care for her family when no one else will. Like her noir predecessors, she gets knocked around quite a bit physically, and while she toughs it, you can’t help but feel devastated and what this young girl is going through. Lawrence’s steely cold blue eyes and resolute attitude make this entire film. Her performance, in my opinion, outshines that of Oscar frontrunner Annette Bening and comes close to Natalie Portman’s bravura performance. And while she may not win, I think we’ll see a nice long career from her.
Speaking of long careers, it’s great to see longtime character actor John Hawkes get his first Oscar nod. You may know Hawkes as Danny McBride’s brother in the HBO comedy Eastbound and Down. But if you watch this film, you will forever know him as Teardrop — Ree’s drug-addled, chain-smoking uncle. Hawkes portrays Teardrop as a man who is an abusive, alcoholic, filthy, violent man who still has a strong sense of family. This man is a criminal, a murderer probably, yet he still cares for the well-being of his niece and her family. He wants her to be taken care and he’ll do it, no matter who he has to hurt. His performance is that of a soft-spoken powder keg. His voice is gentle, almost reassuring, but beneath the soot and grime lies a man on the verge of violence. It’s an amazing performance to watch. Sadly, like Lawrence, Hawkes will not be the winner of an Oscar. That honor is almost certainly going to Christian Bale.
With the Oscars just weeks away, you need to brush up on all your best picture candidates. The first on your list must be the smallest dog in the fight. Winter’s Bone doesn’t have the big budget wizardry of Inception or the pedigree of The King’s Speech. But it deserves the nod. You should find out why.