I keep imagining a TV spot for this film in which critical praise is intercut with tense action from the film. You know the type. My contributions to such a commercial would be "a rarity" and "the best film of the year". The last film I saw, INCEPTION, was previously the best film I'd seen this year. The fact that WINTER'S BONE has usurped that spot so quickly confirms my suspicions that the second half of 2010's cinema might save the entire year. Now back to the matter at hand. I know I just wrote it, but WINTER'S BONE is a rarity. The scenery (shot in Missourah) is haunting in both its ugliness and its bare beauty. The film moves slowly and deliberately toward an inevitable conclusion, but there's never a dull moment. Even during minor scenes showcasing the lead's family unit, the ever-present gloom and electric performances keep things interesting (fascinating even).
The plot concerns Ree Dolly, the primary caregiver to her Ozark family of two siblings and an ailing mother. They don't have much and struggle to get by, but they're okay as long as they have their home and their land. Unfortunately, their convict father put both those things up on bond and went missing. Now Ree, with little to no help from her family and intensely guarded neighbors, must find her father and bring him back before they lose everything. There's a sense of urgency to this task that propels Ree on mission throughout the countryside to question the various shady individuals who might be aware of her father's whereabouts. She is often met with hostility and threats, but she trudges on because there is nothing else for her to do.
The portrait of this dark world, far removed from regular society, is what I enjoyed most about this film. Simple country folk cooking up illicit substances in the woods has been a source of much romanticism and humor in years past ("Andy Griffith" comes to mind), but times are a-changin'. Running booze has turned into churning crank and with that comes much ugliness. These hillbilly criminals are dangerous, suspicious and willing to do just about anything to avoid jail-time. They have their own rules and codes and their own judicial methods. Getting through to people like that proves nearly impossible for Ree. Our desperate hero has to get through to them the fact that she doesn't care what's become of her father, only that she find some way to keep her home.
Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is spectacular in the lead role. Even though she is young, a great strength emanates from her befitting of her mature character. (Lawrence recently signed on to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and will be playing the young Mystique, so her career is just starting to take off.) I would shocked and very disappointed if she didn't end up with some Academy recognition. The supporting players in this film were also top-notch. John Hawkes (of "Deadwood" fame) gives the performance of his career as Ree's uncle, Teardrop. He's unstable and unpredictable and you can almost see the internal struggle tearing away at him. If I had my pick, Hawkes would also get an Oscar nom, which isn't asking too much considering the generally weak supporting categories.
I would be remiss not to mention the film's beautiful and incredibly appropriate soundtrack. Without it, I can't imagine feeling the same way about the film.