It might seem somewhat surprising that, having honed and developed her craft in The Sundance Institute's world famous Labs program, indie darling Debra Granik would move so swiftly to distance her latest tale of windswept Midwest hardship from the festival. Doubly so since they saw fit to again bestow another major award on her this year, the coveted Grand Jury Prize. But when you see Winter's Bone, you will understand her concerns.
A slow burning, relentlessly downbeat story of one poor girl's journey through the harsh underbelly of desperately poor rural Missouri, a place of danger and secrets, this is a world away from the colorfully quirky indie road-trippers that the tight-sweater wearing, fancy coffee-ordering festival base so adore. Though to be fair to Sundance, Frozen River, Precious, and now this film, too, mark a trend of recognition from the festival that there is another side to indie America - a dark side - that's every bit as commercially viable and infinitely more fascinating. Sundance, it seems, is growing up.
The story centers on young Ree (Lawrence), who, having been flatly informed by the local sheriff that her deadbeat, want away father put their ramshackle house up for his bail bond and has now seemingly gone underground, attempts to track him down before she and her two young siblings, plus their catatonic mother, are tossed out into the cold. Anchored by an entirely captivating performance from Lawrence, following her breakout in Guillermo Arriaga's somewhat overlooked The Burning Plain, Granik's neo noir sets itself up as a detective story, with this withered, alienated young kid in for the classic gumshoe.
Full credit to Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, this is a smalltown America rarely seen on film, cut to the bone (no pun intended) by scything poverty that infuses those left in it's wake with a bitterness you can practically taste. As Ree, withered but determined, trudges from shack to shack interrogating her reluctant kin it becomes swiftly evident that all is not well here. With the dialogue sanded down to a minimum from Daniel Woodrell's source novel, so much of the story is revealed through subtle tics, cues and reactions to such simple questions as: "Have you seen my dad?" that clue you in to the idea that something is very wrong indeed.
This is a lawless, secretive community, driven by a palpable contempt for outsiders and the larger world that has forgotten and condemned them to this bleak and frozen woodland. Shot on location in the Ozark Mountains, the air is thick with the smell of slow decay. Each house and junk-strewn yard a picture of desolation to the point where you perhaps wonder if you have stumbled onto some lost deleted scenes from John Hillcoat's recent adaptation of The Road?
Enthralling, unnerving, and a movie that never once stumbles into the rural small-town cliché that could so easily undermine it's power, Granik's sophomore is a triumph of perfect measure, announcing her as a major American talent and Lawrence as a rising star for the future. If this truly is the new direction American indie is taking then we welcome the experience. Honestly, it's about time.
DVD Bonus Features
A dry but informative yak-track with Granik and DOP Michael McDonough. Deleted scenes, an alterative opening, and a making-of featurette. Also included is "Hardscrabble Elegy" performed by composer Dickon Hinchliffe, and a theatrical trailer.
"Winter's Bone" is on sale October 26, 2010 and is rated R. Crime-Thriller, Indie. Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (Screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (Novel). Starring Garret Dillahunt, Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Shelly Waggener.