It takes a lot to make a film scary. And I mean really scary. The kind of fear where, though you might be sat in a cosy and warm cinema, you could swear that there was a chill draft coming in, swirling around your feet and slowly rising up towards your heart. The kind of fear that isn’t engendered by cheap jump cuts or unearned twists, but that arises naturally from a sense of place and a deep understanding and empathy for the characters onscreen.
That’s the kind of film that Debra Granik and her co-writer, Anne Rossellini, working from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, created with Winter’s Bone.
Set in the rural, poverty-and-meth-stricken Ozark region of Missouri, it follows Jennifer Lawrence’s seventeen-year-old Ree, as she cares for her two younger siblings and bedbound mother. Her father has not been home in some time and she doesn’t know where he is, but she burns with a fierce will and determination not only to survive, but to live as well as possible, hardscrabble circumstances permitting. When the local Sheriff shows up (Garrett Dillahunt, one of a cast of excellent supporting players), warning her not unkindly that if her father does not show up for his court date they will lose their house, Ree — knowing full well that that would mean devastation for her family — sets out to track her father down.
Jennifer Lawrence, now perhaps slightly overexposed by the unforgiving spotlight of A-list celebrity, gives a performance here that reminds you that she really is an actor of quite phenomenal power. Stalking across the harsh, foreboding landscape of the Ozark mountains with determination, fear, love and devotion all writ large on her face, you can’t blame some people for remembering Winter’s Bone mostly as ‘the Jennifer Lawrence breakout movie,’ even though it is so, so much more than that.
At its core the framework being followed is one of a procedural thriller: Ree has a target to track down, and a slew of threatening — some more overtly than others — characters and obstacles to overcome. But it is the landscape of this thriller that really gives it something special.
It would be easy to confuse Winter’s Bone for a mythical fairy tale, were its eye not so unflinchingly and unmistakably trained at the real world. A region economically discarded by the rest of society, Ree’s world is not a land of sunshine; there is no promise on the horizon. The people inhabiting it know this, and they act accordingly. And yet Granik is never exploitative about things. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it. She merely presents to you the reality faced daily by her characters, and she does it with economy, grace, and — somehow, despite the circumstances — with a hint of implacable hope.
Winter’s Bone is a movie that rewards you richly for rewatching it. The first time, even if you are looking for them, you will find it hard to see the guiding pencil lines, the signs of the creator’s hand. Of course, this is not a trait unique to Winter’s Bone; it’s one of the marks of great movies in general, thrillers especially. But where Bone really shows itself is during the second viewing. Now you already know the outcome, you are aware of the emotional and plot beats to come, so you should find it much easier to keep your head above the current and avoid being so totally swept up. The second viewing of a movie is where you really re-tune your vision from ‘spectator’ to ‘critic’ and you note every seam and every bit of sub-surface brickwork to see how it all hangs together.
Except Winter’s Bone makes that exceptionally difficult. Not only is it so enthralling in its plotting that it drags you under again, the creator’s hand is near-invisible. Unlike, say, Drive — another excellent movie that sweeps you up completely but whose skeleton becomes very apparent upon second viewing — the construction here is seamlessly integrated into the spectacle. Remarkably only the second movie by writer-director Granik, the command, assuredness, and sense of place she displays is more akin to a few decades’ worth of experience. The movie won some, but not enough, awards. It nailed the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film gong at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, but while it received four 2011 Academy Award nominations (for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor), it did not receive any.
One of the recurring nominations it got from the various award organisations was for Best Supporting Actor, for John Hawkes’ performance as Ree’s meth-addicted uncle, Teardrop. Even among the pantheon of great characters that John Hawkes has given us, Teardrop is a performance of seismic power. I talked about fear at the outset, and the different ways that movies try to make you feel it. Yes, a darkened corridor and a creaking staircase properly filmed can scare the life out of you. But then you turn the lights on and the fear goes. You know what’ll chill you to the bone and stay with you? John Hawkes giving you this look:
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music.