We know what’s going to happen. The Oscar is going to go to Natalie Portman. She has it sewn up, even after appearing in every bad movie this winter, one of which was with Ashton Kutcher. And while Black Swan was a pretty nifty movie with some dazzling performances, costumes, and visual effects, not to mention some of the creepiest locations I’ve ever seen (I’m scared of all theatre basements, but the basement at Lincoln Center seems especially terrifying), it was nowhere near as good as Winter’s Bone. Jennifer Lawrence has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as seventeen-year-old badass Ree Dolly, but she won’t win it. And this would outrage me — if I actually thought that Oscars go to those who deserve them.
The story is both epic and intimate, a classic film noir detective story and a quietly disturbing family drama. Ree is a teenager in the Ozarks, looking after her younger siblings and her mentally unstable mother while her father is off cooking meth and jumping bail. When the bondsman comes to take their land, Ree is given a week to find him. As she hunts down her old man, she encounters some incredibly terrifying folks in the criminal underworld and tries to convince her uncle, the equally fearsome Teardrop Dolly, to help her out. The story proceeds in noir-ish fashion until the gut-wrenching conclusion that finds Ree in a rowboat with the two scariest looking women in all of Missouri. I don’t want to say any more. You simply have to see it, but fair warning: you will feel slightly haunted when it’s all over.
Ree Dolly is unlike any character I have ever seen depicted in film. She’s an Ozarkian samurai — relentless, indomitable, stoic. Every part of this movie will stay with you long after the credits roll, but Ree will stick with you for weeks, like a feverish chill that you can’t shake. There is something in her eyes that is just devastating; Jennifer Lawrence truly gave the performance of a lifetime.
Winter’s Bone is damn near flawless: beautifully shot, well-written, and anchored by Lawrence’s unflinching portrayal of Ree. Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough have even managed to make the region itself into a character: cold, hard, dark, and foreboding, which adds such great depth to the film. This film is a testimony of how impoverished regions like the Ozarks are particularly brutal on women. The movie is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture; unfortunately, it probably won’t win any of them. It’s also a shame that Granik wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Nonetheless, I find it rather awesome that Winter’s Bone was written, directed, and produced by an all-female team. As Loretta Lynn could probably tell you, a woman has a special insight into how it feels to chase down a no-good man, and the kind of guts and resolve required to do so. I wish women filmmakers like Granik made more movies like Winter’s Bone, and that the Academy would start to recognize them.
Update (from Ben): Check out this really neat documentary on the lives and self-identities of many of the native Ozarkians cast in the film (it’s a free iTunes download).