The cinema screen is a surface for projecting dreams, not for reflecting reality.
That, at least, is what Hollywood would have us believe. And we do.
Now and then, however, the stream of fantasy is interrupted by a film that is so firmly rooted in the real world that its authenticity is tangible, a film whose palpable truthfulness makes a connection with the viewer that is beyond what the most cutting-edge, supposedly immersive special effects can offer.
Winter’s Bone is such a film. Surprisingly, it’s American. Even more surprisingly, it belongs to that most unreliable of genres, the crime thriller.
The story’s setting isn’t the familiar ganglands of New York or Los Angeles, however, but the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country and a part of the US that has been devastated in recent years by addiction to crystal meth or ‘crank’.
Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (magnificently played by Jennifer Lawrence) is the lynchpin of a family that’s been pushed over the edge by crystal meth. Tough and resourceful beyond her years, she is single-handedly bringing up her younger brother and sister while caring for her mentally unbalanced mother.
Her father, a notorious crystal meth manufacturer, hasn’t been around for a long time, but his absence becomes an even bigger problem when a sheriff turns up at the family’s backwoods homestead to announce that Ree’s dad has skipped bail. He’s put up the house as his bond and if Ree can’t find him within the week, they’ll lose their home.
Locating him, however, is fraught with danger. Ree may be related by blood to most of her neighbours, but kinship counts for little in this clannish, insular society and in her search for the truth she encounters obstruction and malice at every step.
Ree’s single-minded quest reminded me of the journeys taken by the female protagonists of two films released last year: Courtney Hunt’s gripping blue-collar thriller Frozen River and Peter Strickland’s Transylvanian rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga.
Those films were also deeply rooted in real-world settings and the desolate, hardscrabble existences they depicted so vividly gave an even greater sense of desperation to their heroines’ plights.
Despite her unerring sense of place, director Debra Granik isn’t a Missouri native, but she worked closely with the author of the film’s source novel, Daniel Woodrell, a writer deeply steeped in Ozark culture. (His novel Woe to Live On, also set in Missouri, was the basis for Ang Lee’s underrated Civil War Western Ride With the Devil.)
Jennifer Lawrence isn’t from Missouri, either (she comes from Kentucky), but her performance rings absolutely true. She was similarly impressive in Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, playing a younger version of Charlize Theron’s character. She’s clearly a star in the making, though it will be a shame if she gets swallowed up by the dream factory.
On general release from 17th September.