Winter’s Bone was a subtly written, powerful, and devastating film. It also happened to contain perfect examples of many of the concepts and standards that I judge movies by, so this review will be as good a time as any to introduce these terms and ideas.
The film contained two remarkable performances by Jennifer Lawrence, who played the strong, desperate Ree, and John Hawkes, who gave an intense, unpredictable, and beautifully layered performance as her uncle Teardrop.
The writing was superb. Debra Granik’s screenplay is extremely subtle. It never spells anything out, instead revealing the minimal amount of dialogue or action, and letting the viewer put the pieces together from there. This is especially clear in the final scene.
One thing I always appreciate in movies is a “real moment”. This is just a moment in a movie that feels completely honest, like it could happen in real life. This can either be a single line that a character says, or it can be an entire scene. This sounds easy, but these moments are surprisingly rare, even in great movies. The most obvious “real moment” in Winter’s Bone for me was the scene where Ree talks with the Army Recruiter at her school. This entire scene just struck me as completely true, like a conversation I might have overheard in the lunchroom of my high school. The fact that this scene felt so real made Ree’s desperation in it even more tragic.
Another concept I look for when judging a movie is “The Scene Where I Decided I Liked the Movie”. This one is pretty self explanatory, and you’d be surprised to see how easy these scenes are to identify in most movies. For Winter’s Bone, the S.W.I.D.I.L.M came for me during the tender and emotional scene where the family looks through their father’s photo album. This scene comes late in the film, but it wonderfully reveals the fact that Ree and her family truly did love their father, who had been seen as a mostly shameful and unpleasant character up until that point. The scene sheds an entirely new light on the whole film. I loved it.
I’d also like to point out how wonderfully this film created different levels. I hate it when a movie stays on one level for the entire film, whether that level is sad, funny, scary, or suspenseful. Realistic movies need variation, because life has variation. No one is always happy, and no one is always sad. There are different emotions, and when a movie ignores this, it loses any connection it might have made with the audience. Thankfully Winter’s Bone chose not to be completely depressing and somber all the way through. It obviously had a very dark, oppressive overall tone, but scenes like the bluegrass band playing for their mother’s birthday, and the beautiful photo album scene gave layers to an already brilliant movie, and made it that much more believable.