A remarkable film that felt almost documentary-like in its realism and the way it captures a culture and a way of life that is more than a step removed from mainstream American culture. The film reminded me a bit of such gritty Oscar winners as No Country for Old Men and Frozen River. (I really thought it was that good.)
It’s the story of Ree, a 17 year old girl carrying the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings and her mentally ill mother. Her absent father is facing charges of manufacturing methamphetamine and has put up the family home for his bond. As his trial date approaches, dad is nowhere to be found. The sheriff and the bond company come by the house to let Ree know that unless her father shows up, she and her family will need to be looking for another place to live. So Ree sets on a quest to find her father, bring him home, and save the family home. The people she goes to, "family" in the sense that there is some blood relationship, but more business assotiates of her father, are a scary bunch. They don't take kindly to her questions and seem very reluctant to help her. The head of the family refuses to see or talk to her because "talking just creates witnesses". People don't take kindly to Ree asking questions. There is enourmous pressure for her to back off looking and just let her family be taken by social services. But that's not who Ree is.
At 17 Ree is already a remarkable woman and heroic in the sense that she has these incredibly strong values that she’s willing to stand up for. First and foremost she values family and is willing to fight like a lioness when it comes to protecting them. She is willing to do whatever it takes to take care of them. Her strength comes from her belief about doing the right thing whether it’s making sure dinner gets on the table, or tracking down her father. She’s not particularly brave and there is good reason for her to be afraid of the people around her. She acts because something in her requires it of her. As she says at one point, “There is stuff that you are going to have to get over being scared of.”
The world of the Missouri Ozarks as portrayed in the film seems a hostile and dangerous place, the men and woman can be hard and dangerous, kind one minute and cruel the next, yet there is a code of behavior that governs it all and keeps order. In the quest for her father, Ree finds herself having to oppose that order more and more, and the more dangerous things become for her.
One of the striking things about the film was the sheer number of strong performances by both the professional and non-professional actors. Professional actor Jenifer Lawrence is mesmerizing as Ree and anchors the picture. There is a particularly strong scene with her and an army recruiter played by real life Army recruiter Russell Schalk. He manages to communicate an amazing amount without ever breaking out of his gung-ho Army recruiter persona. There are a number of other great performances in this picture to watch for including John Hawkes as Teardrop and Dale Dicky as Merab.
There are a lot of classical elements to this story. It is the tale of the hero, the fight against all odd, the quest, and there are elements of Greek tragedy. It’s a tight little story, suspenseful, well-acted, and well told. It’s one of the best movies I have seen all year.
It’s funny seeing this movie right after seeing the summer blockbuster Inception whose sense of amorality has been bothering me more and more. In fact, despite the craftsmanship of that film, I am having a hard time recommending Inception to people. Winter’s Bone on the other hand has a strong moral center and I know why I am routing for Ree. On a number of levels she is very much the old fashioned hero worth routing for.