If Inception is the best studio film of the year, this weekend also brings perhaps the best indie feature to open in Memphis so far this year.
Winter's Bone is the first feature from writer-director Debra Granik since 2004's Down to the Bone (with Vera Farmiga) and is set in the Ozarks, on the Missouri side, just across the border from Arkansas. It tracks a 17-year-old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is charged with caring for an invalid mother and two younger siblings. Near the outset, Ree learns that her father, Jessup, who had been arrested for cooking crystal meth, has skipped bond and gone missing, having put the family's home and 10 acres of timber woods up to secure his release.
With her family already in dire straights and now risking losing everything, Ree sets out across the hilly, barren landscape to find her father, leading her to ask questions of people who aren't interested in giving answers. Soon, Ree begins to suspect that Jessup is dead, either from a meth lab explosion or at the hands of the dealers for whom he was working.
With an added air of rural menace and corruption descended from Walking Tall, Winter's Bone comes across as a Southern companion to the 2008 Sundance winner Frozen River (made by Memphis native Courtney Hunt) — another hardscrabble, wintry story of a woman forced into a dangerous situation by economic need and unreliable men.
The film's increasingly Southern Gothic narrative could be the skeleton of a mediocre movie, but Winter's Bone becomes something special due to a steely, engrossing lead performance from the generally unknown Lawrence (previously a regular on The Bill Engvall Show), an undeniable sense of place, and persuasive social detail.
The rural area in Winter's Bone is ravaged by joblessness and crystal meth, with but a few communal spaces holding it together — a bar, a convenience store, a high school, an army recruiting station. Abandoned pick-up trucks and loose hounds dot the landscape. The "old" ways that remain are rooted in either yearning (a sadly nostalgic bluegrass performance) or survival (Ree teaches her younger siblings to hunt, skin, gut, and cook squirrel). Women are guardians and intermediaries but have limits — or are supposed to. "Ain't you got no men that can do this?" one woman asks Ree when she comes around asking impertinent questions, the kinds of questions that "can get you ett by hogs," as Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), warns.
All this might turn too purple in lesser hands, but Granik's approach is realistic and utterly lacking in self-consciousness, the film's perilous narrative and starkly depicted landscape nailed in place by stray snatches of visual poetry, bits of observed beauty indebted to films such as Killer of Sheep, Gummo, and George Washington: kids jumping on a trampoline beside a log house; kittens in a cardboard box; a skateboard on gravel; icicles forming along the base of a plastic rocking horse; a lonely beagle splayed across a little girl's lap.
Opening Friday, July 16th