Sometimes the best form of revenge isn’t murder or maiming, but survival. This type of extreme endurance pumps through Debra Granik’s achingly cold Winter’s Bone, a tautly paced neo-noir set amid the dilapidated structures, abandoned cars, and barren woods of the Ozarks. Regional place and atmosphere are essential to Granik’s grey vision of familial trauma, and the director often sidesteps plot points to allow the thickly veiled mood to seep in. Despite the professionally smooth compositions and set design, Winter’s Bone takes on a documentary feel, not necessarily from a style perspective but in its keen ability to plunge the viewer head first into a specific and desperate human existence.
Winter’s Bone follows the intricate travails of a smart and motivated 17-year-old named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who combats the adult world at every turn to fend off her family’s economic and emotional demise. Ree is not just a matriarch; she’s the engine that drives her two young siblings toward self-sufficiency. With an invalid mother and an absent meth-producing father, Ree cooks, cleans, teaches, and hunts just to keep the day-to-day wheels greased. When her criminal father goes missing after using their house as collateral for his bond, Ree rushes to find him before the bank seizes their family’s last refuge. Ree’s odyssey through the rural backcountry introduces different characters with varying degrees of maliciousness and spite. The most dynamic is her uncle Teardrop (magnetically played by John Hawkes), who mysteriously urges her to drop the inquiry despite the ramifications. Information is scarce during the early moments of Winter’s Bone, but through Ree’s eyes we get the sense an intricately lined hierarchy is being threatened and will bring down hell on whoever stands in the way.
Ree’s burgeoning conflict stems from family skeletons, both literal and figurative, and Winter’s Bone becomes a veritable burial ground of parallel identities and hidden agendas. This makes her journey all the more perilous because family loyalty and unwritten laws seem to be at odds throughout the entire film. Granik often frames Ree in the center of large groups, where dangerous people confront her bold requests for answers. That Lawrence is able to stand upright and take the verbal and physical beatings is just one layer to this fantastic performance, the many others residing deep within her longing eyes and determined posture.
A film with this sort of concise trajectory and unforced rhythm takes some time to digest, and Winter’s Bone is certainly a grower. This is most apparent in the film’s dissection of gender roles, challenging notions of male oppression throughout every cold frame. Ree is at the center of Winter’s Bone throughout every scene, and her perspective becomes that of the audience. At one point in the film, a local female heavy named Merab (Dale Dickey) asks Ree, “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” Ree never flinches, reaffirming her conviction by calmly saying no. In this one moment, other characters begin to understand what Ree has known all along; that being a strong protector has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with intensity.
Winter’s Bone carries an underlining ambiguity regarding duty of country (there’s a scene where Ree wants to join the military for the signing bonus), but Granik organically weaves this side pressure into her heroine’s overarching issues of family conflict. Everything comes down to the idea that Ree’s identity, whether labeled as warrior, defender, mother, or sister, must evolve depending on the complexities of each life-changing scenario. Thankfully, Granik gives Ree some breathing room in the final moments, as she sits down on the porch with her siblings and listens to the wind in the trees. It’s not merely a conclusion, but a reassurance that the burning fight in Ree’s soul will never die. It’ll just grow stronger with experience and age.
Place and region are essential to the visual landscape of Winter's Bone, and the 1080p transfer affords these details a wonderful crispness and clarity. The woods, the structures, the many animals that cross the frame, all equally resonate with a sense of space, allowing the nuances of Debra Granik's vision to compliment Jennifer Lawrence's haunting performance. Shadow delineation and flesh tones, no matter if drenched in the darkness of the Missouri night or speckled with interior lights, are perfectly calibrated. This is crucial considering the many densely layered night scenes intricate to the film's character motivations. Music and subtle audible cues play a key role throughout Ree's unique journey, and the 5.1 DTS-MA sound design gives these small details a wonderfully clear and defining role throughout.
Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough's thoughtful and informative audio commentary is one of the best I've heard in recent years. Both artists shape every scene with actor introductions (many of which are nonprofessional), giving each a moment in the spotlight no matter how large their role. They discuss the visual importance of "creating winter through the camera," and also the way dynamic, powerful motions can subvert words in especially tense sequences. Granik even quotes the great Sam Fuller, saying the "the bullets of motion" are equally important to her as a director. The "Making of Winter's Bone" featurette is also well constructed, weaving descriptive intertitles to document the time and place of each sequence, audition, or rehearsal. The disc also includes an alternate opening that gives the film an entirely different an altogether poetic vision of Ree's background. The four deleted scenes are somewhat tertiary, but the sequence entitled "Ree Spends the Night in a Cave" offers another telling moment between character and place. Also included are a theatrical trailer and a lovely short music video juxtaposing the film's score with images of the region.
The slow burn of Winter's Bone comes to Blu-ray, and the film's especially detailed vision of time and place deserves to be seen in high definition.