A Backwoods Odyssey

I was pretty sure after seeing Black Swan that I had seen the year's most dark and disturbing film making.  But a single scene of Winter's Bone changed my mind completely.

Already a big winner at this year's Sundance festival, Winter's Bone is nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture.  Based on Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name, director Debra Granik has created a small film with an enormous impact.  Shot in the Missouri Ozarks, Winter's Bone is the story of young woman's effort to win back her family's home.  Ree, played expertly by Jennifer Lawrence, must uncover the truth behind her father's disappearance after he puts the family property up to cover his bail.

Ree sets out with what resembles determination but is probably more accurately described as desperation. With a missing father and a chemically debilitated mother (read: nearly vegetative), this 17 year old girl is left as the sole care giver to her two small siblings.  She is her family's only hope to hang on to their home.  But her mission proves to be more difficult than one might imagine given the notoriously tight lipped nature of the closely knit, meth-cooking, mountain community.  Despite her "insider" blood line she is repeatedly denied information and treated as an outsider by extended family and her "crank cooking" father's business associates.

The movie's pace is slow and deliberate.  So slow in fact, I wasn't sure I even liked the film at first.  Lawrence's performance is reserved and her character was not for me, immediately likable.  Ree is a young woman who has been forced to develop strength but remains intensely vulnerable beneath her hard exterior. At any given moment I wasn't sure whether she was incredibly brave or naively ignorant to undertake such a dangerous and seemingly hopeless task.

But then came that scene.

The film's pacing and Lawrence's controlled performance were all leading to one incredibly overwhelming crescendo of a scene that haunted me for days.  It's a scene that is absolutely pregnant with unthinkable horror and bone chilling evil.  But the brilliance of Granik's direction is that rather than subjecting her audience to a firsthand account of the atrocity, we experience the event through Lawrence's facial expressions.  No Hollywood blood and guts required.  No CGI special effects needed.  No gratuitous violence necessary.  The "action" all happens out of frame.  We as the viewer are left to experience the film's climax through its central character.  It is TOTALLY brilliant and unspeakably powerful.

Winter's Bone is a backwoods odyssey.  Ree's journey is bleak.  Her prospects seem dim.  Her story is tragic.  But this film surprised me.  It snuck up on me.  Granik's expert storytelling and Lawrence's award worthy performance won me over.  By the film's end I was deeply engaged and thoroughly invested in the story and its characters.  Winter's Bone is a film that I would highly recommend.

In other news, the stark reality of the Ozark region's meth culture has me thankful that my Missouri roots grew plenty northeast of that particular neck of the woods.  Wooweeeeeeeeeee, thank you, God.
When was the last time you saw a movie that haunted you for days?