Opens Fri., June 18
The trend in American independent cinema these days is toward naturalism. So-called “mumblecore” highlights not sparkling, witty, written quips, but conversational inelegance: fumbling, stammering, aggressively unquotable, how people really speak. Allegedly, anyway. So, it’s something of a relief to listen to the chatter in Winter’s Bone, in which the characters all converse in the same clipped, deliberately written patois. “I already said shut up once with my mouth,” someone threatens early on. That line isn’t Mamet, exactly, but it’s emblematic of the succinct, tough, Cormac McCarthy-derived way its characters talk. No one in the film likes to waste words, or even sounds. No one “um”s and “er”s.
The plot’s even a corker: Absurdly hardened Ozarks teen Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has to locate her crank-cooking dad, who before skipping out on a court date put their ramshackle house on bond. With a week to save her ill mom and two younger siblings from homelessness, she tries to infiltrate the area’s meth netherworld—a task that, as one character puts it, is “a real good way to get by hogs.”
Fucked-up sentences like that are one reason Winter’s Bone stands out from other Sundance-féted looks at abject poverty in Middle of Nowhere, America (see also: Frozen River). A hyper-realistic portrait of this world would be mere misery porn, but writer-director Debra Granik makes it even worse, treating it less like regional documentation than hard-boiled pulp. The film is a series of verbal showdowns, sometimes aided by scalding coffee and chainsaws. Everyone is vicious, if not blood-curdlingly scary. Even Ree’s uncle (John Hawkes) isn’t above lunging at his niece with a chokehold. The bleakness of the terrain combined with the desperation to afford even hay for the horses has turned the locals into characters in a Jim Thompson paperback.
It’s a shame to see this tenacious piece of work go even a little soft at the end, with its newborn-chicks-signifying-rebirth-and-hope symbolism. But after presenting a world of of junked cars and unforgiving skies, where people say things like, “He loved you—that’s where he went weak,” it’s earned the right to a mild happy ending.