First, let’s get one thing out of the way: this is not a feel-good movie. Set in a rural American area during the winter, it looks bleak. When you factor in the poverty and violence of the environment, it just gets depressing. A jaunty, mirthful romp this is not.
What it is, though, is resonant. This evocativeness begins from the first frames, thanks initially to Michael McDonough’s cinematography. It’s not the artistic sheets of white of Fargo, but that’s not what’s called for here. To show the backbreaking work of living in this environment, McDonough layers the physical beauty of the white on the trees with the shanties and scars of those who inhabit them. At one point, he even managed to make an otherwise bucolic lake seem positively ugly and sinister.
From there, the next hat-tip goes to the writing and directing. The pitch of the dialogue seems right on, although not having spent much time in this setting, it’s hard to tell. What is clearer from the writing — and it’s echoed in the directing — is the pace of the movie, from the dialogue to the shots themselves, is languid. Which fits the content perfectly.
The bulk of the awards for the movie, though, have gone to the actors. Jennifer Lawrence, who is reminiscent of a young Renee Zellweger, is remarkable, carrying the emotional center of the film from beginning to end. It is her social status — her presence, or lack, of options in her life — that is most evocative from beginning to end. She is stolid and vulnerable at the same time, and that’s a difficult combination.
John Hawkes has gotten attention as Teardrop, the gruff but sympathetic uncle who ultimately risks a fair amount to help our protagonist. His portrayal was strong, indeed. Whether it ranks in the top-five supporting actor roles of the year I’m less certain.
Was it a perfect movie? No. The movie runs only 100 minutes (1:40), so I’m not sure where I’d do it, but it seems there are some places where cuts could be made or the tempo altered a bit. I realize I congratulated the movie for its languid pace, but there were moments where the languid started to veer toward the torpid.
Winter’s Bone is a small movie. It’s the prototypical depressing indie film, of which there is lots of competition (see Frozen River, for instance, for an interesting comparative). Immediately after watching it, I was ready to consider the parts (acting, writing, etc) and then file it away. But what altered my opinion was its staying power, as the next day, I found myself again considering the plight of those in the poverty of the movie.
It’s that resonance that gives it a whole beyond the sum of its parts to me.