It's quite uncanny that director Debra Granik's feature films to date all have to do with drugs, dysfunctional families and a strong woman as the protagonist who has to make lemonades out of the lemons given out by Life. A dark horse in the upcoming Oscars competing on four major fronts, this film had already won The Grand Jury Prize ad the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at last year's Sundance Film Festivals, amongst others, and clearly its release here only now is positioned to gain from the publicity of its Oscar nominations.
Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone is extremely bleak, in its subject matter, themes and the kind of characters in the story. It deals with misery, uncertainty and poverty, all stemming from an irresponsible father who makes meth, suddenly disappears, and in the meantime has put up his house and land as personal bond. If he absconds, this will mean his family will have to stay in the streets. The family's no better off too, with Jennifer Lawrence's Ree caught in the centre of this storm, being the sole provider to the family now made up of a mentally ill mom, and two younger siblings yet to fend for themselves.
Not only is the wintry landscape a dampener on moods and feelings, having the kind of relatives that Ree has, is something of a major downer as well. Through the most parts in the first half of Winter's Bone, it's about Ree's quest to find her father, to try and appeal to his good sense not to skip his bond and to attend his court hearing. To do so means to hit the road and check if he's at any relatives' house, and my, if any of you think your relatives are nightmares from hell, you haven't seen nothing yet. There's absolutely little love demonstrated by these folks to Ree's plight, and while small doses of compassion get dished out, it's more of an aftermath of something nasty to have taken place.
Debra Granik deliberately moves this at snail's pace, preferring to test your endurance as we sit through with Ree trying to figure out her next move, as she hits the brick wall ever so often. You feel that secrets are being kept from her on her father's whereabouts, yet fearful for that bit of truth to reveal itself, especially when it seems that there's a hint of an elaborate, staged cover up amongst the many relatives that she encounters, each preferring to stay mum, except for the frightening uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) who provided the first jolt on screen after too many minutes of moroseness.
But the gem in this film is undoubtedly Jennifer Lawrence, who shows her acting mettle with the role of the determined Ree, balancing nerves of steel in knowing what she wants and desires, and balancing that out with pragmatism in what's good for the family first. At the same time, she has this teenage vulnerability since she's still a minor (and hence the fleeting broach of the subject of her joining the military solely for the money), and an incredible reveal toward the end that will just hammer in multiple, heartfelt emotions that reflect the irony of being hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. I suppose this film will open doors that she's a credible actress in her own right, and her role as Mystique in the upcoming summer blockbuster X-Men: First Class will provide that required wide exposure.
It doesn't spell out everything, and you'd have to piece it all together since words said are few, and certainly in manners most nasty. It's emotionally draining and taxing given the many negative traits and emotions, and has one extended family with characters that you do not want to cross for whatever reason. A film you'll probably want to sit through nevertheless so that you have a much better picture of the Oscar contenders in order to have that good chance of winning the office betting pool.