This is our first installment of Halftime Report, in which your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.
Sitting down to watch Winter’s Bone for the first time since its theatrical release, I was most curious to see how Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn held up. In the years since she’s become a perennial awards favorite, star of multiple franchises, and America’s favorite “cool girl,” but her performance here is still bracing, alive with the sense of a major discovery. Playing Ree Dolly, a teenaged girl in the Ozarks in search of her fugitive, meth-cooking father, she exudes a toughness and sensitivity that she’s glossed up considerably as her profile has risen. I came away surprised by her anew and confident she’ll surprise me again soon.
The film itself remains one of the strongest of the new decade for the light it shines on the dark pockets of America, places most people would probably rather forget exist let alone spend any time in. But director Debra Granik demonstrates a meticulous attention to detail, from the detritus scattered over everyone’s yards to the secondhand clothes to the proper technique for skinning a squirrel, not to mention an unsparing but compassionate eye when it comes to the poverty the characters endure.
That same meticulousness is there in the plotting, too. At a brisk hour-forty, Winter’s Bone wastes no time, with a lean structure that recalls both ’40s noir and classical mythology. Tasked with ensuring her bailed-out father makes his court date or lose the family land, Ree’s dilemma could have become a by-the-numbers quest but Granik, and author Daniel Woodrell who wrote the source material, are interested in much more than that. This is a place of codes, not only of criminals or families, but between men and women too, and as Ree starts to navigate the world around her, the film becomes a fascinating inquiry into the power dynamics of this very particular corner of humanity. The women may answer the doors and the men may profess to have knowledge they’re not sharing, but it quickly becomes clear which gender is actually running the show and the climax plays almost like a grotesque initiation ceremony for Ree. But for most of the film she’s a young woman alone in an inhospitable environment; it’s a premise with inherent danger but Granik’s stripped down style refrains from pushing this too hard, preferring to showcase the starkness of the landscape and the emotiveness of Lawrence’s face rather than flashy technique. This was only Granik’s second feature film and while she did recently secure a release for a documentary, she’s yet to make a narrative follow-up. It’s one of the most disappointing, and damning, developments of recent years, and I hope to see another project from her before the decade closes out.
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