Winter’s Bone – first reviews (updated)

Winter’s Bone was screened at Sundance yesterday and the first reviews are pretty positive. Some snippets below.

A teenage girl’s resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles just barely wards off the icy chill that cuts through “Winter’s Bone,” director Debra Granik’s bleak and exemplary sophomore feature. Following its brave heroine (an outstanding Jennifer Lawrence) as she seeks to uncover the truth behind her father’s disappearance, the film employs the structure of a whodunit to take a tough, unflinching look at an impoverished Ozarks community ruled by the local drug trade. Raw but utterly enveloping, “Bone” more than merits the patient distrib attention that’s become an increasingly rare commodity in the indie marketplace.

Sparely adapted by Granik and producer Anne Rosellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film amply confirms the low-budget artistry and skill with actors Granik evinced in her coincidentally similar-in-title debut, “Down to the Bone,” which won the directing award at Sundance in 2004. In its frigid rural setting (the Missouri Ozarks, where the film was entirely shot) and its story of a woman prepared to cross social and legal boundaries to keep her house and family intact, “Winter’s Bone” also bears a resemblance to another Sundance prize winner, 2008’s “Frozen River.”

With her mother in a near-catatonic state and her father in jail for cooking methamphetamine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence, “The Burning Plain”) is used to taking care of herself and her younger brother and sister — chopping wood from the family’s several acres of timberland and, with some help from the neighbors, just managing to put food on the table. Their already-fragile existence is further threatened when the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father, Jessup, has been released from prison and that their house and land — which Jessup had signed away as collateral — will be seized if he fails to show up for his scheduled court appearance. [Variety]

Even if I spent the day trudging around in wet, slushy shoes and even if I didn’t have a single real meal, experiences like catching “Winter’s Bone” on Saturday (Jan. 23) evening are the reason you go to festivals like Sundance.

I’d heard nothing at all about “Winter’s Bone” and was mostly interested in it because of supporting players John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt and because writer-director Debra Granik showed significant skill working with actors on “Down to the Bone,” her feature debut.

But “Winter’s Bone” was one of two or three early evening screening possibilities and it was only my choice because a desired early afternoon screening was over-booked, forcing me into a different movie and causing me to exit the theater at exactly the right time to get into the line for “Winter’s Bone.” That’s why, like so much that goes down at Sundance, my screening decision was based more on pure convenience than artistic imperative.

Whatever, the cause, it was fortuitous. “Winter’s Bone” is the best film I’ve seen this Festival and also one of the best films I’ve seen in the past year, a drama I appreciated more as I became increasingly immersed in its unique world. []

Screening in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance 2010, “Winter’s Bone” brings to mind a number of prior Sundance highlights. Like “Frozen River,” it depicts a woman driven to hard choices by hard circumstances; like “Brick,” it sets a teen protagonist into a thoroughly modern set of problems that might be better described by the scenes and structures of classic film noir. Like director Debra Granik’s previous Sundance film, 2004’s “Down to the Bone,” it depicts a very American kind of poverty, one not only of economics but also of emotions. Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” has more than just the echoes of other films to offer, though. It has the forward motion of a thriller, yes, and the who-knows-what questions of a mystery. But it also has a delicacy to it, as 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) searches for her absent father while caring for her younger siblings and ill mother, and director Granik, shooting with the RED digital camera, wrings bleak poetry out of the ruined landscape of the Missouri Ozarks.

Ree is not looking for her absent father in the general sense, or to heal some past wound; local Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) explains to Ree that her father Jessup, arrested for cooking crystal meth, put the family home up as his bond – and then disappeared. If he doesn’t appear in court in a week’s time, Ree and her family will lose everything: Baskin says to Ree, “Make sure that your daddy knows the gravity of this deal,” but Ree doesn’t know where he is. And no one will tell her. Trapped in the silences and secrets of the local criminal underworld, Ree goes to family and friends and neighbors and enemies, knocking on doors and seeing what happens like a Chandler hero, motivated by nothing less than survival. []

The strongest competition film is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a hillbilly noir set in the Ozarks, featuring an absolutely stunning performance by Jennifer Lawrence. I liked Granik’s Down to the Bone, with Vera Farmiga, which premiered six years ago, but this is really something to see. It mixes styles and tones beautitfully, and it’s colored by some beautiful uses of music, folklore and the down low. It’s the kind of film where every single performance feels note perfect. I’ll have more about it later. [Light Sensitive]

Half mountain noir, half mythological odyssey, Winter’s Bone is my favorite kind of detective story: the kind with no detective, per se. (That the movie takes place in a part of the world I know fairly well is just a bonus; suffice to say, Winter’s Bone is in my wheelhouse.) Jennifer Lawrence plays a 17-year-old high school dropout taking care of her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings, and trying to make the most of whatever she can grow or kill on her family’s tree-covered property. Then the sheriff knocks on her door one day and warns Lawrence that her absent father is due in court, and that he’s put up the house and land as bond. [A.V. Club]