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Winter’s Bone is a story of poverty, desperation, and the scrappy resourcefulness of women. The film follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in her quest to save her family from homelessness. She cares for her near-catatonic mother and two younger siblings alone, in a shabby house in rural Missouri, until the Law comes calling. She is informed that her missing father, Jessup, has put up the family property as collateral on a bail bond. If he doesn’t show up to court, the family will be turned out into the snow.
What follows is a story as simple and taut as an old-school Western. Ree sets out to track down her father, but every step along the way turns into a do-or-die endeavor: just getting her hands on a vehicle and keeping her siblings fed is an enormous feat. Her every interaction with other characters—even those trying to help her—crackles with tension. Even extended family members turn on her without warning. Knowing she can’t trust anyone, Ree has learned to rely only on herself, and so we are treated to long sequences of her walking endlessly through the gray Mid-western woodlands, skinny and alone. There isn’t a lot of talking in Winter’s Bone, but the film is shot through with a deep, poignant resentment of authority and the status quo. At one point, Ree admonishes her hungry siblings to “never ask for what ought to be offered.”
Lawrence carries off such lines, which could turn to cheese in the wrong hands, with an earnest passion. What makes her a fully realized character rather than a spectacle or a stereotype is the fact that director Debra Granik allows the audience time to breathe, to soak in Ree’s reality and to contemplate her depressing surroundings. We aren’t shown her pathetic house in voyeuristic flashes; there are no sappy montages of her worn-out furniture and clothes. Instead, we are at her elbow as she cooks for her family, and next to her on a barn floor after she’s been beaten up. Granik, like Ree, keeps things moving and stays focused on the task at hand. The result is beautifully balanced, that rare film that’s both contemplative and thrilling.
Perhaps the most obvious progenitor of Winter’s Bone is Frozen River (2008), another excellent film that also received accolades at Sundance and the like. As with Bone, River follows a female protagonist (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and boasts a female writer/director (Courtney Hunt). It is a film of similar minimalism—and similar quality. What elevates Winter’s Bone and Frozen River from the realms of so-called “poverty porn” is both films’ insistence on simply telling the women’s stories, neither sensationalizing nor apologizing for their subject matter, even though the characters’ poverty is sometimes shocking. Hopefully, this new aesthetic of raw reality and female resilience is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; one Winter’s Bone is worth more than a thousand Twilights.