SIFF Review: Winter’s Bone

White Tank Top Learns to Stay Off That Dirt Road (and Not Mess with Serious SIFF-goers)

I knew Winter’s Bone was going to be a pretty big deal when I saw the SIFF movie-going pros waiting in front of the Egyptian. Their elbows looked sharp from many an armrest skirmish. They spoke knowingly about the improved opening night buzz in Everett. One guy had, somehow, already seen 69 films in the festival and had decided to see Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone for a second time because he liked it so much at a press screening. The quantity of films in such a short period had sadly blurred his memory though. When asked for specifics on films he liked, he turned into my stepfather: “you know…what’s it called…the one with that guy who was in…” 

The pros dispensed other insights fast and furious. Apparently no one is into the “SIFFter” app (sample dialogue from one critic to another who was flipping through a catalogue: “Why don’t you use SIFFter?”  *general laughter*  “Yeah, right—SIFFt this!” *subtle hip thrust*). 

The SIFF buffs also do not appreciate in-theatre smart phone usage by “the bloggers”: “I told him, ‘Hey kid, turn off your fucking iPhone for five seconds!’” (Note: this comment did make me look up from my iPhone, momentarily.)

When patrons of The Owls streamed onto Pine to make room for us, they also noted admiringly that director Cheryl Dunye can bring out impressive quantity of lesbians.

Inside the delightfully cool theatre (SIFF organizers clearly read my complaint about the heat in my Night Catches Us review), Winter’s Bone gripped us from the opening credits and didn’t let go for 90 minutes. As the film progressed, I felt more and more confident in my longstanding belief that there’s no good reason to turn off a country road onto a dirt track.

Read the full review after the jump.

Down one such road in Missouri lives Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, above, who’s about to be much more well known), the sole provider for her younger brother, sister and incapacitated mother. The plot couldn’t be simpler: Ree needs to find her missing, meth-cooking father or the bondsman is going to take her house and the law is going to take her family.

Naturally, she decides to ask around until she finds him.  This would seem straightforward but she lives in a region populated by extremely uncooperative people.  Her neighbors might offer deer meat and marijuana but they’re hardscrabble, wary of questions. Ree’s travels take her to an array of trailers set deep in the woods and to people who wear, almost exclusively, cheap screen-printed t-shirts with mammals or camouflage or camouflaged mammals. On her peregrinations, these people greet Ree from their antler-festooned doorsteps with lines like, “you got the wrong place I suspect.”  If you press them, they might say, “talkin’ just causes witnesses.”

Lawrence projects her character’s undaunted nature (“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered”) with straight eyebrows over narrow eyes that never look fooled.  She knows how long ago a meth lab could have burned down from the length of the weeds inside the wreckage.  Her only match in the film is John Hawkes (Deadwood), who gives a stirring performance of stone cold command as Ree’s uncle Teardrop (we are left to assume how he got the nickname).  He backs down the town sheriff (the always reliable Garret Dillahunt, another Deadwood ensemble member) and just about everyone else.

In many ways Winter’s Bone is about characters learning the proper dispensation of knowledge.  To get what she needs, Ree has to navigate past guard dog women and get to men, small time criminals who behave like more exotic animals.  She gleans scraps of information from the universal verbal discouragement she receives.  Everyone knows more than they let on, which leaves Ree frustrated but still generous. She’s willing to pass on her wisdom — teaching her brother and sister the fine points of squirrel skinning but also when to shut up.  Despite her frantic, hand-to-mouth struggle to live, Ree is never pitiable — she’s a problem-solver.

Where other SIFF films have faltered, Winter’s Bone rises to the challenges of the third act. Tensions continue to ratchet in the darkening Ozarks and, without any spoilers, I can say you won’t believe how much it takes for Ree to end her search. Somehow this taut, new American classic takes on the weight of Greek myth. And when Teardrop hops into his pickup and rides off for the last time, he is as moving and iconic as Alan Ladd’s Shane.

Long after SIFF 2010 is finished, I’ll remember Ree and Teardrop teaching their kin what they need to know and what they need to forget.


See Winter's Bone tomorrow, May 30, 1:30pm at the Egyptian.

What's on tonight? Life During Wartime, starring Paul Reubens.