Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Eleven

#11 — Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

In the society where Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) grew up and still persists, the rules are tricky and unyielding. Ree is a teenager residing in the Ozarks. Family woes mean she is charged with looking after her younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thomspon, respectively). The daily tests of getting by are tough enough, and then Ree learns that her errant father has put their home up as collateral on a bond. If he doesn’t appear for a court date, the family loses their home, which is really the only thing they have. With few allies she can depend upon, Ree is left to save the family, delving deeper into the sordidness of her father and his associates.

Adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone brings dignity and empathy to a place and a people that have commonly been reduced to caricature in U.S. cinema. That’s not to assert that the film, directed and co-written by Debra Granik, is a lionizing celebration. It extends its piece of dignity in the best possible way, by treating the scenarios it builds with unblinking honesty. In the film’s rendering, these straining mountain cultures are fraught with danger and defined by resilience. As Ree pushes closer to a gnarled truth, her well-being becomes more and more precarious. Lawrence plays her part with perfect calibration, keeping the performance grounded in a survivor’s helpless pragmatism. She persists because there is no other choice. And Granik reflects that in every scene. There are no manipulations or easy theatrics driving the narrative. It moves forward with the certainty of life, of a new hour following the last. The film is as real and worn as a flannel shirt fraying at the cuffs.

Winter’s Bone is haunting in a manner that is sadly uncommon in modern films. It makes its lasting impression not with a jolt of shocking bleakness or crazy loop-de-loops of storytelling. It instead insinuates itself because of the keen attention Granik brings to every element. She is an astute observer and a great assembler of visuals. She knows when to hold a moment and when to let a quiet aside flood the senses. The film is often mesmerizing in its restrained certainty of purpose, as if a camera were left in the woods and the surreptitiously captured squabbles of passers-by were crafted into cinema. But, of course, there’s nothing serendipitous about Granik’s filmmaking. It’s assured and controlled, a succession of exquisitely crafted moments adding up to a smartly dazzling whole.

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