"Winter's Bone," available on DVD from Lionsgate, is a truly tough, hard-scrabble film about tough, hard-scrabble people, but it's also as deeply touching and soulful a motion picture as I have seen in some time. There isn't a moment in the movie that rings false, not one single scene or performance or line of dialogue that takes you out of the drama.
Directed by Debra Granik (from a screenplay that she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini, based on a novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell), "Winter's Bone" is an extraordinary example of the transportive power of film -- how the best movies can take you to places unfamiliar, sometimes even downright dangerous, and allow you, the viewer, to feel that you are witness to real lives and real events, ones that you would likely never choose or even desire to see, but once you have seen them, you don't ever regret having the experience.
In the film, Ree (played by Jennifer Lawrence in an deservedly Oscar-nominated turn ) is a 17 year-old girl growing up in a harder life than many teenagers her age will (or should ever) experience. Her father is absent, her mother is virtually catatonic. This leaves Ree to be the de facto head of the household, caring for her younger brother and sister as best she can, while trying to keep up in school. One day, the county sheriff comes to the house; her father, who was out on bail prior to a court appearance on drug charges, has vanished. If he doesn't show for a trial date that's only a week away, Ree and her family will lose the home and land that he signed over as collateral on the bond. This news, instead of causing Ree to crumble, only seems to strengthen her resolve -- and she decides to plunge alone into a knotted (and potentially deadly) mission: tracking down her missing father.
If this cursory introduction to the film makes it sound like a thriller, well, that's because it is; "Winter's Bone" is a terrific white-knuckler. But what's more thrilling is the richness of the storytelling, the almost brutal honesty in this tale of a fiercely brave girl who takes huge risks in order to save her family. A second layer of the story, involving the girl's mysterious uncle (brought to vivid life by John Hawkes in another of the film's Oscar-nominated performances) and what he is ultimately willing to do, is just as powerful.
"Winter's Bone" is a movie that doesn't talk down to the audience, or put a wall between itself and the characters and invite the viewers to stand above the people on the screen. No, you are with Ree every step of her journey, meeting every pair of veiled eyes, hearing every unspoken threat. You sometimes wonder how she keeps going, then you see her with the young siblings she obviously loves, and her willingness to go into dangerous territory makes perfect sense.
A confession: I had heard about "Winter's Bone" late last year, mostly thanks to a raft of critical praise from major media outlets, but I confess I didn't have a tremendous drive to actually see it. As it racked up notices during the 2010 awards season, I began to wonder what I was missing -- but had no way to actually see the movie. When I noticed that it was being to released to home video earlier this year, I was very interested in renting it, but simply didn't. Then it was nominated for a quartet of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, which is when I should have finally succumbed -- but instead I passed.
I finally saw "Winter's Bone" this past weekend -- my wife and I purchased it on a blind buy -- and after it was over, I felt a strange mix of joy and sadness; I was happy I'd actually seen this remarkable film, while I was disappointed that I'd denied myself the opportunity to experience it for as long as I had. If the first time you heard of this film was on Oscar night -- or frankly, while reading this column -- and it interested you in the slightest, I highly recommend seeking it out. Four stars (out of four).