MOVIE REVIEW: Winter's Bone

One of the year's best dramas


Winter’s Bone

Roadside Attractions, made in association with Anonymous Content, produced in association with Winter’s Bone Production.

Director: Debra Granik.

Jennifer Lawrence: Ree Dolly

John Hawkes: Teardrop

Dale Dickey: Merab

Lauren Sweetser: Gail

Shelley Waggener: Sonya

100 minutes

Rating: R


By Sean Willey


It’s a sweet release to see a movie not focused on special effects or fancy camera work, just realistic storytelling. Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a dramatic narrative about a girl whose will power saves her family’s honor.


Winter’s Bone was distributed by Roadside Attractions and crafted by up-and-coming director Debra Granik, whose specialty seems to be the societal effects of drugs. This is one of the best dramas to hit theatres this year.


Unfortunately, Winter’s Bone won’t be judged in the same category as other similar dramas, such as The Secret Lives of Bees, solely because it wasn’t produced in Hollywood. It’s a shame. It did what so many dramas attempt to do but often fail at, creating realistic characters in extremely pragmatic settings. Dramas succeed when protagonists overcome menacing, often shadowy, struggles in realistic locations. Perhaps that’s why Winter’s Bone won The Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award for Best Picture.


Granik went to the poverty-stricken Ozarks in Missouri to film. Much of the cast was from the area as well. The main character’s sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), came from a family in the area. The most dramatic stories come from what we know, in this case drugs and the destitute it creates, but are too afraid or ashamed to admit exists.


Winter’s Bone put the viewer in the world of narcotics with no addiction, showing one they can bind him or her to the fear they create.  


Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a responsible and strong young woman shackled to a world of rules. One must never “ask for what ought to be offered.” With her mother in an almost catatonic state, she is the glue holding the sanity of her brother and sister together.


Her dad, Jessup, is a runaway methamphetamine maker. When his bail comes due he is nowhere to be found. Dolly has one week to find him otherwise she will lose her house and the honor of her family.  Her Grail-like search takes a nasty look at how the drug culture silenced her community.


Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s uncle, even seems hesitant to help. His shame for his brother comes off the screen like a thick slab of peanut butter, it’s thick. At first he seems more content to stick to what he knows – silence.


With nowhere left to look, Dolly turns to the queen bee of the community, Merab (Dale Dickey). Dolly quickly realizes she’s digging to deep. The silence of her dad’s whereabouts will be kept at all costs.


Winter’s Bone was shot on a Red digital camera, which allowed Granik more freedom in small locations. Red digital cameras upgrade the picture to 4k instead of the standard 35mm. 4k isn’t preferred by Hollywood because it produces more grain and a darker exposure. However, this gave Winter’s Bone the grit necessary to make it an uncorrupted view at American destitution.  


Jennifer Lawrence at only 19 years old, and a win in 2008 at the Los Angeles Film Festival for Best Outstanding Performance in The Poker House, bears striking resemblance to the early days of Dakota Fanning. Lawrence has the same vibe Fanning portrayed in The Secret Lives of Bees: A heroine escaping to the future by uncovering the past. The fact that Dolly endures this mystery with no ego is a testament to both Granik’s directing and Lawrence’s acting.


Hawkes adds another element of believability to this story. A sad story indeed of a man bound to cocaine. He blindly follows the rules of his community. Deep down though it’s obvious he is a man ashamed of his life. Without Hawkes’ portrayal, this movie would have been one-sided, but with it we see an inspirational portrayal of a man looking for redemption. 


The script is as powerful as the movie’s stellar acting and superb directing. Its strength is its evolution of human emotion. Where the movie’s script comes across strong is in the areas of life lessons and hopelessness.


The most encouraging advice Dolly gave throughout the entire movie, “Sunny, there is a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of,” was later challenged when she pleaded to Teardrop she had to find her dad. “I’ve got two kids and a mom to tend with. I need him”. Courage can only run so deep before even the most durable person needs a little help.

Winter’s Bone will see the same success Precious, a Sundance and Oscar winner in 2010, saw. Winter’s Bone is a gritty look at the suffering drugs can create. It’s a dramatic piece of art that puzzles together the lives of people with different backgrounds into the same threatening struggle. Finally, an award-winning drama without special effects or a sappy love story, just an ordinary girl who needs to rise up for a bond we all have: family.  

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