|A Southern teen navigates dangerous blood ties, and a new star emerges in the revelatory thriller Winter’s Bone.
Depictions of Southerners in film have been cordial at best. From the banjo playing rapist hillbillies of Deliverance to the beer guzzling racists from You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, the South and its inhabitants have played the part of social pariah in so many films, that it has become a caricature many believe to be gospel.
Winter’s Bone does not rely on such banal formula. With its use of striking detail, strong characters, and an almost tangible sense of environment, Winter’s Bone succeeds as an engaging mystery that also demystifies the Southern stereotype.
Most surprising of all? It is a Yankee, director/co-writer Debra Granik, and the once in a lifetime performance from a little known actress from Kentucky named Jennifer Lawrence, that makes it all so.
Lawrence stars as Ree, a 17 year old teen responsible for her impoverished family, which includes two younger siblings and her emotionally paralysed mother. When she is notified by the law that her drug chemist turned fugitive father has put their house on bond, Ree has to navigate some murky waters to find her “Pa”, and save her home.
To say that her journey is a treacherous one is an understatement. Decades long blood feuds, and the nature of her fathers’ “business” brings with it a danger that is palpable.
Set amongst the backdrop of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, Granik presents Ree’s environment in an effectively realistic way. The long walks across the vast fields and forests brings with it a sense of place that is both surreal and eerie, its grim beauty harbouring a strong sense of dread manifest in the many tweakers, cons and criminals that call these backwoods home.
Granik presents a fear of the Deep South that is neither offensive nor succumbs to caricature, but is instead based on mood and character. These are people living through hard times, surviving off the land and upon each other, with Ree finding solace and assistance in her meth addicted Uncle Teardrop, played with a wonderfully wiry energy by John Hawkes.
Music also plays a big part. The film opens with a lullaby like melody which soothes the soul. More compositions follow in the form of free flowing sing-a-longs which Ree encounters during her travels.
Yet it is Lawrence that is the real revelation, embodying her character with equal measure grit and soul in a brilliant performance that engrosses from the first frame.