Unlike Precious and Frozen River (the latter I enjoyed for its performances), Winter's Bone feels lived-in; it doesn't feel like the filmmakers are above the material judging it, smugly proud of the way their exploiting their marginalized, poverty stricken characters for the sake of impressing the Sundance crowds in the name of "understanding these characters" or "showing us a world we've never seen before because we're too concerned with our own lives to look worry about it." Meth is a driving force in this film, but it never makes an appearance; drug trafficking is the cause for a lot of the fear for the Dolly clan, yet, there are no chase scenes or moments where we follow the characters into the despair of drug use. No, that kind of mentality isn't on display here as writer-director Debra Granik, working off a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is too smart for that. She fashions her film, instead, in the style of the Dardenne brothers (the masters of minimalist cinema) where she relentlessly follows her lead character, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she searchers for her father Jessup, a meth dealer and "cooker", who has put their house up for bond, and if she doesn't find him in one week she will lose the house that she and her younger brother and sister and comatose mother are staying in (not to mention the timber land they own). The camera always stays on Ree, even when other characters enter a house, the film doesn't cut away to show another point of view. We watch the events of her life unfold as nuance after nuance of her odyssey seem to build and compound upon one another until before we even realize it we're knee deep in a thriller, and the film doesn't let us go of its grip until the final cut to black.
Granik may be indebted to the narrative style of the Dardenne's, however, she stays away from their aesthetic (there isn't an entirely large amount of hand held camerawork on display) with the exception that she and cinematographer Michael McDonough keep the camera tight on Ree's face during a lot of the film's most intense scenes. It's a brilliant way to show us the danger of the situation without delving too deeply into the ugliness; instead, we simply experience through Ree – which is why Winter's Bone is better than most of the overhyped stuff that comes out of Sundance every year. There's a moment that actually reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Ree, after going back to a place she was told not to go to one too many times, is dragged into a garage, and before we can see what happens to Ree the steel door slams shut – much like Leatherface slamming shut the door before he hooks his victims. Granik shows the same restraint here that Hooper did with his seminal horror film: the idea that it's much more affective if we hear the screams briefly and then see the after effects of the attack.
The film reminded me a lot of Jeff Nichols' 2007 film Shotgun Stories, another brilliant film about rural, marginalized characters (the major difference being that Winter's Bone is about female characters, making it "one of the great feminist works" as David Denby called it), and how they negotiate the blood ties in their community. Winter's Bone works because of the astute observations made by Granik; the great acting by Lawrence and her co-stars, especially the great John Hawkes (who is looking like a haggard Viggo Mortensen here) as her uncle Teardrop; the icy cinematography of the Ozark Mountains; the impressive lighting that evokes the perfect tone throughout (just dire enough, but with a tinge of optimism); and the astute observations about Ree and her family, where they live, and the production design of not just their house, but the things found around their house: tires, cans, rundown cars, kitchen counters full of milk jugs, and other items evident of "cooking" (meth labs). I love films that simply follow their characters through every moment without feeling like exploiting the very culture that their character inhabits.
Granik's film has an uncanny way of saying a lot by saying very little (lines like "if you listen to what I say you'll find your answer", or, "I've already told you to be quite once with my mouth") with needless exposition (throught the entire film we're filling in the blanks of Ree's life, how it got the way it is, her relationship to those who surround her, and just what her family name means to the sheriff and to the community); rather, the film focuses on using its visuals to move the story along (again reminding me of Shotgun Stories, the best film of 2008, where simple shots that merely observe without being too obvious tip the viewer off to who these characters are, where they come from, and what they've been through), and no visual, perhaps, was more memorable than that of the faces of the film's characters. The makeup crew did an amazing job in this film making these people look like meth dealers/users; Lawrence looks a little too pretty for her role, but I kind of liked that about her character as the film is essentially at its core about a young girl coming of age, and it's important to see the innocence before we see the experience in a film like this, and in a very subtle way, you can see the changes to Ree by the end of the film.
Winter's Bone employs that kind of slow burn mentality where before we even realize it an amazing amount of fear and dread is on the horizon because of the very subtle actions taken by the characters. This isn't a conventional thriller (and I realize how overused that phrase is when talking about films that come out of Sundance), but it has some of the most tense moments of a film I've seen in a long time – some of these moments would require me to spoil things (which I don't have any desire to do in this review), but I will simply say that there is a moment that takes place in a boat, set at freezing dawn, in the middle of nowhere, and with a chainsaw. I will leave it to you to imagine how all of those things come in to play and how they coalesce to create an insanely intense moment that is lit to perfection (adding to the tension) and shot in a way that actually adds to the fear and uncertainty of the moment (the right amount of, for lack of a better word, "stuff", is kept off screen, again understanding that the unsaid has a greater effect). Winter's Bone is a brilliant thriller, and one of the best films of the year.