Saturday, April 7, 2012

This Week at the Movies - Winter's Bone

So last weekend, I did what so millions of other people around the US did. I went and saw Hunger Games. I enjoyed it a lot, certainly enough to really want to see the rest of the series on the big screen, but what it did more than anything else was make me curious about Jennifer Lawrence. I only knew one thing about her. That she'd been nominated for Best Actress for 2011 for the movie Winter's Bone. It was time to see what the big deal was about.

Adapted from a 2006 novel by the same name, Winter's Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl in the Ozarks, doing everything she can to hold her family together. Her mother is catatonic, and she has two younger siblings, aged 12 and 6. Her father is nowhere to be found, currently skipping bail for cooking meth.

When the sheriff and then bondsman arrive to let Ree know that he has to make his court date or risk losing the bail - for which he'd put up their home and land - Ree takes it upon herself to find him. Nobody wants to talk to her. Her family and the larger drug community just want her to leave well enough alone. But Ree is the sole caretaker for her poor family, and she can't give up, even when everybody warns her off, saying (and trying to provide evidence) that he must be dead.

This is not an easy film, not in emotional simplicity, not thematically, certainly not to watch. Shot entirely in Missouri, it's an unrelenting view on the barren world of poverty in the Ozarks, on the people who do what they must to survive, on the physical topography that ultimately becomes an additional character fighting against the determined Ree. There are no shortcuts here. People go hungry. Actions are taken that are neither pretty nor forgivable. Characters have both terrible and redeeming features that make them, in the end, utterly and completely human in their flaws.

All of this doesn't necessarily up to a great movie experience, however. While I can appreciate much of this after the fact, and some of the great things it has to offer during, the tedious pacing through much of the movie makes it feel longer than it actually is. The movie only runs 100 minutes, but there were times my attention wandered due to the laggy pace. It's a combination of a couple things - the languorous pace of the setting as well as the slower editing - and ultimately keeps this from being a real keeper.

But none of this was why I watched the movie in the first place. Jennifer Lawrence's performance is understated and stoic, never betrayed the steel that runs at the character's core, and yet, she still manages to let vulnerability peep through when the moment demands it. When Ree breaks down near the end, wondering what she's going to do, the viewer is roughly reminded that this is a child we're watching, a nearly full-grown one, yes, but still a child, who is swimming against the tide in every possible way. Moments like these are what makes Lawrence riveting. She can, at times, come across as a little blank (which makes me wonder what she'd be like in a less internalized role, if she's a versatile enough actress to go flamboyant if the part demanded), but for the purposes of Ree, that's a necessary mask. She also lets enough out to show that it's not all about being strong.

Lawrence's Best Actress nomination wasn't the only one this movie received. Along with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, actor John Hawkes was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Ree's uncle, Teardrop. Teardrop is a meth addict, and the relationship he had with Jessup (Ree's uncle) is complex at best. He's one of those dangerous characters in this that shows how close to humanity so many of them come. While he's more than a little scary with his addiction (and unpredictable behavior), he's also surprisingly devoted to Ree and her siblings, fierce when the circumstances demand, gentle when you least expect.

I can't say that any of the nominations should have won yet as I've yet to see all the entries in those three categories, but I can certainly understand why they got the nomination in the first place. Lawrence has a huge career ahead of her, thanks to Hunger Games. I just hope she doesn't get pigeon-holed since it's clear she can actually act.