FILM RATING: 4 stars
(Upgraded from 3.5 to 4 stars on September 29, 2011)
One of the most surprising indie films I’ve seen from 2010 is Winter’s Bone (2010). It’s a dark, gritty, character-driven drama about a 17-year old girl scrambling to take care of her sick mother and younger siblings in rural Missouri. Her father is missing, probably dead or in trouble, and she is thrown into taking care of her family with no money or resources to do so. The appreciation of this film is in the slow revealing of the suspenseful complex story, and the details of the lives of the characters within it. The film is written and photographed with a realism and texture that takes us right into the cold, barren, winter life of poor southerners trying to survive.
Having watched this film once, and then a second time with the audio commentary on, I’m struck by the incredible attention to detail and care that went into constructing this film. It just goes to show that sometimes less is more when it comes to production budgets for movies. This film was made for approximately $2 million, which amazes me when I see what they got for it. Winter’s Bone reminds me a lot of another recent Sundance Film Festival winner with a low production budget: Frozen River (2008). Both films are set during winter, and explore strong female characters at the centers of the “tough” stories. Both films are excellently written and carefully crafted by their female writers/directors. And both films are wonderfully photographed by their directors of photography. Winter’s Bone was shot in digital on the Red Camera, an impressive display of the new digital technology that is continuing to change the film industry.
The incredible cast of Winter’s Bone is what really brings this story to life. Every detail in their words, their clothing, their make-up, and in their faces is expressed with passion and commitment. While many of the characters stand out and shine on their own, sometimes in just a few minutes of screen time, what struck me most was how as an ensemble they all brought the film to the same level of excellence. They all deliver Oscar-worthy performances for acting, but will probably be overshadowed precisely because of the sheer quantity of competition between themselves in this one film. Lead actress Jennifer Lawrence will probably be nominated for Best Actress, but beyond her performance, we’ll have to see.
Do yourself a favor, and watch Winter’s Bone. It’s a testament to the great indie films that are still being made in our times of $100 million blockbusters that mostly lack soul, depth, and craft. I realize the material for this film isn’t necessarily a “fun” escape, but cinema isn’t only about laughing or crying. Sometimes a great movie just shows you the way something is. Winter’s Bone does that very well.