American arthouse moviegoers love this sort of film – bleak, tragic, unflinchingly realistic piece of socio-political cinema. Especially one with a heroine so fierce and fiercely performed that it’s a valid reason enough to award it the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. If this seems like déjà vu, it’s not. Like last year’s runaway hit Precious, Debra Ganik’s Winter’s Bone shares some similar backbone to Lee Daniels’ life-is-cruel tearjerker, drawing a portrait of the harsh backyards of America and its dark family issues that populate its terrain. Only Winter’s Bone doesn’t launch into some pseudo-fantasy sequences where the central protagonist dreams up Hollywood red-carpets to escape the brutal reality. Ree Dolly, 17 years-old, is a tougher creature – pragmatic, unyielding, unsentimental and ever so hardened by her environs and experiences that could very well warrant what Charles Darwin’s Theory on Evolution was sussing about. And this is no melodrama. It takes a matter-of-fact approach into a neo-noir genre, with the heroine enforced to investigate her own drug-dealing, meth-meddling father’s whereabouts only to stumble into a sprawling ordeal with Ozark Mountains’ grimly ruthless citizens. The kind of people Texas Chainsaw Massacre warned us about. But instead of leatherfaces, they wear expressions deeply set in poverty, utter lawlessness and feral determination to dispatch those that threaten to destroy their way of life.
And yet Ree, tough-as-nails, barely gives a damn, doing everything despite of her pale, destitute, frostbitten existence to pull her own family together and to save their home from being repossessed. With a near-catatonic mother and looking after two younger siblings, she possesses some spark of humanity that’s inspiring and life-affirming, despite of the cruelty and hardship that would render most of us reeling into a nearby gutter. But not Ree. She’s all about survival. Whether marching the lands of those that murder her father, or being beaten up by local outlaws so-called relatives, bruised and battered, she carries on. Jennifere Lawrence may have bagged one of the best female performances of the year with her quietly steadfast yet soulful turn. And Ganik compliments this presence by a haunting direction, using some rigorous framing and a cinematography so desolate it transforms landscapes into greyish wastelands. She frames Southern Missouri in a raw, unhurried manner – treacherous woods, frosty grounds, littered backlots – resembling a community located faraway from progress or civilisation, the forgotten backdoors of America.
A remarkably vivid and chilling portrait of red-neck, white-trash America. As unflinching as it’s realistic, Winter’s Bone doesn’t let up – a survival guide into the Ozarks Mountains courtesy of 17 year-old feminist fighter Ree Dolly, performed to heartbreaking heights by one Jennifer Lawrence.