Cambridge Film Festival Review: Winter’s Bone

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The Pitch: In The Bleak Mid-America.

The Review: The Sundance Film Festival has now been running for over 30 years, but in that time, although it’s initiated and promoted the careers of many illustrious film makers, the movies picking up the jury awards have generally found life a little tougher. But rather than being the kiss of death, receiving the Grand Jury prize seems to have given Winter’s Bone momentum, and talk of much bigger awards in next year’s season is already being banded around. In this case, that talk is justified, because what Sundance has discovered is a movie of real power, and within it a number of potential talents for the future.

At the centre of Winter’s Bone is Jennifer Lawrence. She portrays Ree Dolly, effectively left as head of the family despite being only seventeen, due to her mother’s spiral into illness and her father having disappeared after his seemingly only talent, for making crystal meth, has gotten him into trouble and leaves him facing a long jail term. Despite her age, she seems more than capable of caring for the family, although she has become reliant on the charity of neighbours due to their dire financial situation; when the bail bondsman arrives to announce that Dad used the family farm as part of his bail bond, it becomes apparent that finding him is the only way to ensure that she’s not protecting her family from somewhere in the woods.

The local community is isolated, with a division of roles down the line of the sexes that Ree finds herself on the wrong side of if she hopes to gain attention to her plight. But there’s a steely determination about her that keeps her on the path to finding the truth, and a willingness to consider any option. Unfortunately, this only serves to put her increasingly into harm’s way and she finds herself unsupported and challenged at every turn; not only does no-one want her to find her father, but it seems whatever’s happened is enough for them to be uncomfortable asking questions.

Given that she’s only a little older than the character she plays, Lawrence’s portrayal is remarkable. She perfectly embodies the resilience needed to stand up to the masculine hierarchy of the community who barely want to acknowledge her presence, but also shows her tender side when supporting the family, and the family’s plight feels all the more real for it. Those confrontations have a real edge from the start, but as matters escalate and the locals show their hand, or indeed their fists, Ree’s intractability shines through and is expertly balanced in all of the performances.

The other significant credit must go to director Debra Granik, who also contributes towards the screenplay adaptation. The bleakness of the community settings is thoroughly captured, and Granik uses this in conjunction with the tone of the performances to create an air of tension that threatens, and ultimately delivers, true menace. The pacing is unhurried but this just allows for the movie to apply its vice-like grip with that tension, and as events unfold there are some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments, before the narrative reaches its unflinchingly brutal resolution. But don’t be put off by the thought of that – although bleak, there is still a sense of hope, if not optimism, couched within that resolution. There is also an occasional sense of humour tempered through the bleakness, but more than enough to want to encourage you to become trapped in their world. Lawrence and Granik deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, and you owe it to yourself to experience this stunning adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark cinematography is well complemented by the intense performances, but the fact that the performances are understated, but effectively so, means that the big screen is the best place to capture all the subtleties.

The Score: 10/10