Winter’s Bone is scary. It isn’t Black Swan scary, it isn’t Rec scary, it isn’t even Saw scary, but a few weeks on it still gives me the chills. Mainly it’s a character story about Jennifer Lawrence’s 17 year old character’s strength of will, and how she will do anything to protect her family, but even more memorable than her (best actress nominated) performance is the whole oppressive tone the film has going on. There’s a guy called Teardrop, for god’s sake!
Oh, and Teardrop is one of the nice guys. Well, I say nice. Teardrop is one of the… sympathetic characters? He grew up in this ridiculously bleak countryside, it would be hard to blame him for being a bit rough around the edges. Basically everyone living in Winter’s Bone’s version of America’s deep south causes immediate wariness. They might be friendly or indifferent at first, but ask a few of the wrong questions and you’re getting a cup of tea in the face.
Unfortunately for Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), she has a habit of asking questions.
The basic plot is that Ree’s father has gone missing while on bail, and put the house up as collateral, so if he doesn’t turn up soon then she, her mother, and her younger brother and sister will lose the house. Her mother’s mind is gone beyond the point of being any help, so Ree looks after the younger kids on her own, with the occasional bit of help from the neighbours or Teardrop, her uncle.
So she sets out to find her dad. Which involves asking an awful lot of those uncomfortable questions. She’s asking the kind of people who might have killed them. People with names like Floyd, Sonny and Thump, yes Thump. The tension is relentless, it comes first from the overarching fear of losing the house, then more directly and threateningly from all the danger Ree is putting herself in to try to avoid that happening.
The film can have its cake and eat it with its 17 year old heroine. She can come off as a tough-as-nails never-back-down classic hero – early on she is seen outside chopping wood, and I doubt I can be the only person who automatically associates that with the likes of Rambo – but the reality that she is so frail compared to these threatening middle-aged southern men always sticks in the mind.
As for winning an Oscar, this movie has an advantage in the US. It can be looked at as a way of saying that small-town southern middle-America can be a complex and threatening place rather than just the home of “real American values” as politicians often enjoy saying, and that could play well with the hippie liberal coastal city elite that makes up the American Academy (in my head at least). It might not play so well in the UK, where we’re all terrified of middle-Americans anyway (in my head at least), but the film does avoid judging any group of people or falling into stereotypes. It is a complex film about often complex people, and is worth watching for its tone alone. Its countryside is about as grey as some kind of bleak irony-free Sleepy Hollow.
Yet somehow it manages not to come off as a world without hope. Ree’s whole story is built on her hope of finding a way to keep her home, and with perseverance like hers I reckon there’s always hope. So with that note I won’t say this film will definitely not win best picture, just that I wouldn’t recommend that Ree bet her house on it.