Now that "The Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence has been put in Hollywood's spotlight, more people are curious about her acting. The Horn's newest movie critic, Todd Balazic, reviews Lawrence's breakout film "Winter's Bone."
Now that Jennifer Lawrence—thanks to her starring role in “The Hunger Games”—has begun her ascent to mega-stardom, moviegoers who missed Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone would do well to take a look at this exceptional film. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture), “Winter’s Bone” is the story of seventeen-year-old Ree (Lawrence), who faces a series of evermore harrowing challenges as she searches for her father, Jessup, who has vanished into thin air after being released from jail. Arrested for the manufacture and distribution of crystal meth, Jessup is out on bond, which places young Ree in a horrible predicament: because Jessup put the family house up as guarantee for his bond, Ree and her family will lose everything if he fails to show up for his next court date. And because her mother’s response to life with Jessup was to withdraw into a state of catatonic uselessness, Ree must serve as mother to her twelve-year-old brother and six-year-old sister as this broken family confronts the prospect of homelessness.
So, no, “Winter’s Bone” was not the feel-good hit of 2010. But it is a powerful work that haunts the imagination days after watching it. Though the first third of the movie is a bit repetitive (Ree strives and is thwarted, strives and is thwarted, etc.), once the bonds between the characters become more firmly established, we find ourselves wholly immersed in Ree’s world. It is the world of rural southern Missouri, where poverty and meth addiction are rife, and where a desperate sense of pride carries the day (“Never ask for what oughta be offered,” Ree tells her brother). The law makes an appearance from time to time in this isolated community, but only to underscore the fact that these people live according to their own law. Violence is taken for granted as a basic fact of existence and is neither questioned nor condemned. It is in this hard setting that the characters reveal their humanity: a bent, mistrustful and flawed humanity, but a humanity nonetheless.
As Ree searches for her father, she must reconcile her own needs with the needs of her community (there are people who don’t want Jessup found, and who aren’t shy about using force to protect their interests). Fortunately, Ree is not entirely alone in her struggle. She is aided—reluctantly, at first—by her uncle, Teardrop, a meth addict and wounded soul whose menacing façade hides a broken yet genuine tenderness. Teardrop is played by John Hawkes (“Deadwood,” “Eastbound and Down”), who is utterly magnificent in the role (and who would rightfully have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar were it not for Christian Bale’s astounding performance in “The Fighter”). Lawrence is excellent as well. She gives a subdued performance, her face nearly expressionless at times, a mask of numb but unshakable determination: she understands that Ree’s is not a culture in which emotions are readily displayed. But when the emotions do come to the surface, they are as raw and unvarnished as every other facet of Ree’s stripped-down existence.
When Ree does find what she’s looking for (in a scene not soon to be forgotten), her story becomes mythic in the enormity of its horror. Mythic as well is the film’s overwhelming sense of place. Cinematographer Michael McDonough, shooting entirely on location, saturates every frame with the life-rhythm and landscape of the Ozarks. As the movie progresses, the environment itself becomes the main character: stark, unyielding, yet harmonized by an order uniquely its own, an order in which squirrels are food and leafless trees darken in the thin light of winter. “Winter’s Bone” is a visual poem on the theme of survival, and its poignant, beautifully understated closing shot befits a work governed throughout by intelligence and restraint.