My favorite film of the year so far is "Winter's Bone" (10), director Debra Tanik's searing depiction of a teenager who quickly acquires wisdom beyond her years in a family crisis. Set among people living way off the grid in the Missouri Ozarks, it captures a world of poverty, crime, and hardship with more particularity than any film I can remember; its command of gritty details is complete and utterly convincing. Even more remarkably, its clear-eyed insight extends to the spirituality and inner workings of the individuals and the culture it depicts. By the second viewing, I had the powerful sense that, though I haven't lived in a context like this, its dangers are familiar. And the courage of its heroine (played by a remarkable newcomer, Jennifer Lawrence) inspired me.
I should admit that it took me two viewings to fully appreciate the film's power. It's not that I didn't admire it on first viewing; it's that the story is so harsh that I had a hard time hanging in there with it at first. I'm a pretty empathetic viewer, and felt intensely the darkness with which this stolid girl must do combat, so much so that I felt a little nauseous by the end. It helped on the second viewing to know what to expect so that I could enter into the film's world more fully. Even without the benefit of true surprise, I was absolutely blown away the second time through.
The teenager at the center of the story is Ree, a smart and resourceful 17-year-old who stoicly devotes herself to the day-to-day survival of her silent, lost soul of a mother and her two younger siblings. Her father, a notorious meth cooker, has been missing for a couple of weeks, which apparently is cause for no more concern than the daily struggle for food and heat. But when the local sheriff informs Ree that her missing dad has posted as bond their land and the roof over their heads upon his latest release from jail, Ree's bleak daily struggle suddenly becomes more urgent; she must find her dad before his upcoming court date or she loses the struggle for good.
The hills are full of her kin, which she thinks should mean something. Problem is, as part of her seems to suspect, what it means is not necessarily good. Those relatives seem to know much more than they are willing to say; all are in the grip of a harsh world that keeps them at odds with the law, a world rigidly ruled by demands of loyalty and silence. Ree's need to know the truth in order to ensure her family's survival so conflicts with the dictates of custom and code that her own survival is threatened.
From the very first frame, the film feels immediate and raw. Every detail is right: the kids sleep in their clothes, and desultorily amuse themselves by skateboarding in the dirt or bouncing on a riding horse atop a large trampoline. Their hair looks like Ree probably cuts it herself with blunt scissors just enough to keep it out of their eyes; she teaches them to find and shoot squirrels and pull out their guts, and when her brother asks if they eat that part she says simply, "not yet." Ree tramps all over these hills on foot and when she needs to go further than is practical on foot she has to beg the use of a married friend's truck, who has to beg its use from her husband on the promise that Ree will pay for the gas. The men in the community seem to run things, but the women make things go, following up the threats of the men folk by either showing Ree the way around them or warning her to heed them or offering her food or cash when they can do no more.
Yet all of this is depicted with a kind of dignity and even respect. The people are not treated as oddities, nor do you have the more usual sense of filmmakers throwing dirt on actors and filming them lying around on dusty furniture and looking slovenly. There's a kind of order to this world, as brutal as it is, and there is kindness to be found in the ways people find to operate within its rigid code. In one scene, Ree begs her silent mother for help, "just this one time," in discerning what to do--but finds help instead from her uncle Teardrop (Deadwood's John Hawkes in a particularly memorable performance), a menacing crank sniffer who is one of the first to urge her that she'd best leave the truth alone. Eventually he helps her find it, though when she confesses that she has always feared him, he comments, "That's because you're smart." There is also a group of women who offer help and brutality, sometimes in the same moment; they are protecting themselves, for sure, but at times you catch a glint of a motive to school Ree. For her part, she almost never flinches, watchful, perceptive, adjusting her eyes with each new revelation.
There isn't a wasted line or mannered detail anywhere; the storytelling here is as clear-eyed as the heroine. The most profound revelation for me was that this world, for all its brutality, seemed in some ways less dangerous than the worlds I know better--as a friend put it, everything looks broken down, but it functions. And without access to the artifice one can acquire with money and respectability, there's a kind of truthfulness to the way things work. People don't pretend to be serving some higher goal when they are stabbing you in the back; at one point when Ree asks, "Are you going to kill me?" the response is simply, "That idea was talked about." I admired the honesty of this world even while I was gripped with fear at the thought of what this child is meant to learn. And I found her courage--her ability to look hard, and to act on what she sees--inspiring, and instructive.