Review: Elegant probably isn't the first word that comes to mind after watching Winter's Bone, but it fits. There's a certain quiet, understated elegance to the film that subtly draws you in, makes you care deeply about Ree and her family and their uncertain future, and eventually leads you to ponder what really happened to her dead-beat father, Jessup.
Though there are elements of mystery and suspense here, Winter's Bone is more of a character study than anything else, with much of the success (or failure) of the film dependent on Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree Dolly. Ree's father, Jessup, used the family property as collateral for a bail bond, and then promptly skipped out. If he doesn't show up in court -- or is otherwise found -- the property will revert to the court. Ree, who's only 17 years old, is raising her much younger brother and sister on her own, her mother having mentally retreated from life, a shell of her former self. With no one to turn to, Dee heads out to find her father, all the while asking questions of extended family and friends that need to be asked ... but shouldn't be.
Lawrence, who is in every scene of the film, is superb in her performance here, always credible as a teen that has far more responsibility than anyone her age should ever have. Her supporting cast is nearly as good, playing roles that could easily have slipped into caricature, yet feel right and true to the viewer. The direction is confident and sure, the pacing near perfect, the noir-ish visual look of the film striking. There's a bleak, minimalist aspect here that is somewhat paradoxically quite appealing.
The underlying mystery to Winter's Bone is what happened to Jessup Dolly. If he's alive -- and that's no sure thing -- where is he? If he's dead, where's the body? Ree tells everyone she meets she doesn't much care if he's dead or alive, her sole interest is in keeping the family homestead so she can support her mother and siblings. But there's an unwritten code that asking questions, even of family, can only bring on a world of hurt. The short timeline -- she has a week to find her father or lose everything -- adds to the tension. How the storyline plays out and resolves itself is simultaneously mesmerizing, shocking and surprisingly touching.
I was taken in by Winter's Bone, though it's clearly not a film for everyone. It's gritty realism is, at times, difficult to watch and the code of ethics that bind these people together is -- to outsiders -- hard to comprehend. Still, the outstanding performance by Jennifer Lawrence as a young woman determined to do whatever it takes to save her family coupled with a superficially simple yet deceptively complex plot that keeps us engaged throughout, make this one of the best films of the year.