Sundance 2010 Review: WINTER’S BONE

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 10th, 2010

Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Februrary 2.

Rating: 4/5

Writers: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (novel)
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Kevin Breznahan, Garret Dillahunt

Ree Dolly’s life is not easy. The de facto head of her family, seventeen year old Ree is in charge of a disabled mother and two younger siblings. Her meth-cooking dad, Jessup, has skipped out on his bond and is nowhere to be found. The stakes? The family home and land, put up on bond by Jessup without Ree’s knowledge. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, it seems that everyone in Ree’s life is bound by an unspoken code of silence – not just based on blood ties, not just based on illegal activities, but a combination of all these things, tied up in crushing poverty and futures that can only be described as bleak.

Upon finding out what Jessup has done, Ree takes it upon herself to journey through the county, desperate to find Jessup or anyone who can give her so much as a shred of information to go on. Along the way, she meets all sorts of devils – her own uncle Teardrop, drug lord Little Arthur, and grand master Thump Milton. So much of WINTER’S BONE plays like a new-school take on Greek mythology – it’s our own venture through Hades and back. But Ree has little currency to ferry her back and forth, and is utterly and horrifyingly stuck in her own personal hell. But for Ree, and for everyone in her life, this hell is home – the only one they will ever know and the only one they will ever have. Even Ree’s once-held dream of joining the army is a last-straw attempt to make quick money to save her family, and even that can’t pan out in a way remotely describable as successful.

Much like last year’s PRECIOUS (to which WINTER’S BONE will inevitably draw comparisons, Neil Miller from FSR being the first one I heard make the comparison), it’s hard to feel glad for Ree even when things do “work out.” The life she has is inescapable and filled with hardship. There’s no clean way out. There’s a real authenticity to what WINTER’S BONE shows on screen, it’s an immersive and biting experience from start to finish. Director Debra Granik does not shy from showing us the worst of things, winding the film up for maximum tension. It’s not a nail-biter, but it’s own version of a stomach-turner. Though a textbook happy ending never seems like a possibility, but there are so many horrible ways everything could go, it becomes harder and harder to look away.

Yet, instead of WINTER’S BONE’s last, and more brutal, moments engaging the audience further, they feel like a hastily built conclusion. Which is, of course, all the more flummoxing when they don’t immediately result in an actual end – but a new section of the film that continues on way past when it should. The film breaks from its original trajectory in this final third – no longer are we following Ree on her journey, we are tossed into a new section that cuts the film off in a way that makes the last half an hour feel broken from what we’ve previously watched. It’s one of those killer moments in film, and not in a good way – it’s that moment when you look at your watch, the moment when you fall out of a movie that has so far been so engrossing.

However, the film benefits from a string of strong performances – Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Ree is one of the most fully-realized I’ve seen in a long time. She is a tough and inscrutable protagonist, bitingly tough and ruthlessly fearless. The film absolutely hinges on what Lawrence brings to the table, and it’s a nearly flawless performance. The rest of the supporting cast isn’t too shabby either – John Hawkes’ Teardrop straddles the lines between monster and hero like he’s playing hopscotch, and even Ree’s best friend Gail (as played by newcomer Lauren Sweetser) brings a different take on their broken way of life to the table.

WINTER’S BONE is not a film for the faint of heart, but it’s a stirring fable and mediation on a way of life rarely presented on film in such a brave way. Not feel-good cinema, but think-hard cinema.

WINTER'S BONE won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance.

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  • Kyong Fiorentino

    Also agree with #1. Every single time First Blood is on TV I watch it (which has been happening a lot on AMC). Just a damn good movie. Really original protagonist and some really good antagonists too.

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    Very interesting read, thanks

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