This Year's Best Film You've Ignored Comes to DVD

Those Swedish films about a tattooed girl who lives dangerously may be the most popular mysteries of the year, but there’s another mystery movie that’s equally worthy of attention and it was filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

Winter’s Bone is adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell and about Ree Dolly, a teenager with true grit who, due to an absentee meth-addicted father and mentally checked-out mom, must provide for her two younger siblings. One day, the sheriff drops by to inform Ree that her M.I.A. father put their home up for bond and if he fails to show to court then they’ll lose everything they have, which isn’t much. Ree immediately embarks on a door-to-door quest through her community to find her father. That’s where the mystery lies; he’s gone somewhere and something may have happened to him, and everybody will offer Ree pot or cocaine, but nobody will talk about his whereabouts.

This is a film where the characters and the environment (practically a character itself) are equally as important as the mystery. Director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) went on location and passionately endeared herself to the locals while arranging financing for the film and writing the script. Her appreciation and fascination of the region couldn’t be more apparent and, short of a documentary, you won’t get a more authentic feel for this backwoods community. There is not a single Deliverance joke made at the expense of these people. The properties are shabby, rundown and full of barb wires, broken cars, gravel drives, and muted colors. There is no warmth, no carefully tended yards with pretty flowers or picket fences here.

True to its authenticity, Winter’s Bone blends professional actors with real-life citizens to an almost indistinguishable degree. Chief among the performances, of course, is relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who previously starred in The Burning Plain and Mel Gibson’s still-shelved The Beaver. Lawrence seems to be following the Ellen Page career model by starring in a break-out indie then latching onto an X-Men film (Lawrence will star as a young Mystique in X-Men: The First Class). No matter. In Winter’s Bone, Lawrence proves she’s every bit as formidable a talent, giving us a strong female character with few options in life and the resourcefulness and determination to do whatever is necessary to provide for her siblings. She wishes she could join the military, one of the town’s only opportunities, but her age and situation keeps her at arm’s length. So she continues chopping wood, cooking meals, teaching her siblings how to hunt squirrel, and searching for her father.

John Hawkes, a “That Guy!” actor who’s been in everything from The Perfect Storm to Identity and From Dusk Till Dawn, plays Ree’s uncle Teardrop, a tattooed coke-addict with a quiet and intimidating intensity. We don’t know exactly what to expect from Teardrop, but fear the worst. Hawkes gives one of the year’s most impressive and surprising performances, one that has gained critical notice and may soon pay off with award nominations.

Everything in Winter’s Bone is as downbeat and somber as the bleak topography. The acting here is spare, barebones, and naturalistic. Imagine a film with a sense of place and characters like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, but without their humor or dynamism and only a touch of their brutality. This is not a film about cheap theatrics or big dramatic moments with a background score telegraphing what you should feel.

Winter’s Bone debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury prize for Best Picture. It then continued on the art house circuit in early summer where it was mostly ignored by general audiences. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this film is only for the pretentious, artsy-fartsy crowd. Winter’s Bone is a film for anybody looking for movies with great characters and writing. It is a passionately made, quiet little mystery with rich characters, writing, and acting that just so happens to also be one of the best films you’ll see this year.


Should you see it? Rent

Winter’s Bone is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.


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