Winter's Bone

Debra Granik returns to the theme of addiction in a second feature, with menance and intrigue following close behind, says Mike Catto

Last week the US government admitted that 14.9% of its citizens live below the poverty line. Nowhere is it more evident than in the rural deprivation in the Ozark mountains, as depicted in Winter’s Bone, the new film from Debra Granik.

Following on from her debut feature Down To The Bone, Granik’s second feature returns to the theme of drug addiction through a low budget film with an unknown cast, and yet Winter's Bone has this year picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Shot on high definition video, the visuals give Winter's Bone a beautiful, but frightening view of the landscapes and woods that the almost feral humans inhabit, an area littered with rusted pick-ups and appliances.

Forget picturesque hillbilly stereotypes. Distilled moonshine has been replaced by the industry of making crystal meth, breeding an atmosphere of distrust. In each tiny tribal community, even the women are naturally violent, and through them passes young Ree Dolly, a powerful performance by 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

Ree’s mother is catatonic with depression; her father is missing, having jumped bail on crack ‘brewing’ charges; and Ree is left to protect her young siblings and teach them survival skills and honesty. Ree is charged with finding her father, who has put the family home – such as it is – up as bail collateral and if he isn’t found within a week, the property will be repossessed. To find him, she has to travel through this nightmare landscape and face terrifying ordeals.

We gain the impression that each tiny criminal community of suspicious humans is related by blood to the next, and most people, young and old, are known by nicknames rather than by a family name. Ree elicits help from her uncle, Teardrop, and with his introduction the complexities of the local people unfold.

Played by John Hawkes, Teardrop is menacing, protective, funny, withdrawn, gentle and violent, seemingly all at once. Combined with Jennifer Lawrence’s performance (tipped for award recognition), as a 17-year old who can be child, woman and hunting animal, Granik dispels any perceptions that the audience might have that these characters are one-dimensional.

The dialogue, like the narrative, is sparse. Speaking in single sentences – 'Talkin’ jist causes witnesses; witnesses disappear' – and director Granik uses the silences to speak for the characters, introducing sudden scenes of violence and long moments of suspense, but it would be wrong to think of Winter’s Bone simply as a thriller.

Winter's Bone is a very human disquisition into the otherness that can exist in a civilised nation, almost anthropological in the manner in which it examines but never condemns these people who have been outsiders for centuries.

We are used to seeing this in poverty stricken urban jungles – think of The Wire, or last year’s Sundance winner, Precious – but it is shocking to see all our conventions and notions turned upside down in this wilderness setting. It has the directness and local nuances of the Louisiana novels of James Lee Burke and the stripped back, microscopic detail of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

You can catch Winter's Bone at the QFT from September 24 to October 7.