WINTER'S BONE was the big surprise of 2010, rightly getting accolades for the performances of John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence. But my first impressions after the credits rolled was just how economical it was. A shade under 100 minutes, the film wastes very little time propelling you into the heart of the story - 17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has to find her father Jessup, a crank cooker awaiting trial who put the family house and land up for his bond. Knowing he'll never show up for court, and having to raise her younger brother and sister alone (her mother spends most of the film in a trance-like state), holding on to the the house and property is the only thing keeping Ree and her family from disintegrating.
Everything you need to know about Ree, her family, and the various players who will fade in and out of the story come from this search, and it's a beautiful piece of storytelling from writer/director Debra Granik and her writing partner and producer Anne Rosellini. Set in the Ozark region of Missouri, WINTER'S BONE takes a simple premise (daughter searches for lost father) and imbues it with a haunting, otherworldly atmosphere by grounding everything in a reality few mainstream moviegoers are familiar with. The poverty and familial culture represented take on almost classical overtones thanks to the characterizations in the film: Jessup Dolly, the missing father; the mysterious Thump Milton, who runs the crooked kingdom of drugs that the town turns a blind eye to; and of course the vengeful, outcast Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree's uncle and eventual partner in the search for a brother who may not even be alive.
It was a foregone conclusion Christian Bale would win the Oscar for best Supporting Actor, but John Hawkes turns in an amazing, subtle and brooding performance, alternating between physically terrifying and introspective, holding every scene he's in with a haunting stare that is captivating to watch. It's as much a transformation as Bale's; particularly when compared to the first film I saw him in, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, where he played a lovesick nebbishy shoe salesman whose arm catches fire. Here he reminds me of Dennis Hopper, and the climactic scene when the town sheriff pulls Teardrop over is incredible: one of the best fight sequences of the year (Alison Willmore brought this up in her 2010 wrap-up on the IFC News Podcast) without a single punch.
It feels like Jennifer Lawrence sprung out of nowhere to give life to Ree Dolly, a young girl forced to grow up much faster than anyone should have to, raising her siblings and caring for her mother all while to trying to keep food on the table and the influences around her from infecting herself and her family. Her voice is worn with experience, tired and tough, with no room for negotiation or excuses. In a film where every face is lined with a million stories, it's impossible to turn away from hers, and Lawrence manages to carry the plot of WINTER'S BONE without having to rely on anything other than her determination to find her father and save her family.
Filmed with a striking grace, with a tight screenplay anchored by two excellent Oscar-nominated performances, WINTER'S BONE may have been the big surprise at the awards ceremony this year (it scraped up four nominations including Best Picture), but to anyone who saw the film it should have come as no surprise at all. Great movie, and definitely one of the best of 2010.