While watching this movie, my thoughts quite frequently turned to Precious.
They seem quite similar at first, since both movies are about teenaged
girls living in conditions that any sane person would be abhorred at.
The similarities pretty much end there, however.
To start with, while Precious lived in squalor, at least she lived in
New York City. Ree Dolly lives out in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri,
where the only signs of civilization are a school that appears for two
scenes, a military recruiter who gets one scene and a police station
that doesn’t seem to do much of anything. This is a place where the
natives subsist primarily on squirrel meat and cocaine. There’s no
evidence of TV, radio or movies and the only books in sight are the kind
you color in yourself. Everybody’s on drugs, everybody’s got guns,
everybody’s related by some amount of blood and the law isn’t nearly as
helpful as the neighbors living half a mile away on a dirt path.
The movie establishes pretty much instantly that this setting isn’t
the safest place to be. A lot of what sells it as such is the
cinematography. Yes, the camera work is solid and the editing is good
(except for that interminable last shot), but I’m talking about the
colors. The vast majority of this movie has a bleached-out look,
filtered through cold and harsh colors. It did a lot to give the film a
very dangerous and uncomfortable look, and the subconscious effect it
has is undeniable.
Fortunately, something that Precious has in common with Winter’s
Bone is that both are anchored by superlative performances from
their respective lead actresses. Ree is played by a young woman named
Jennifer Lawrence and I’ll be very disappointed if this movie
doesn’t turn out to be the start of a long and successful career for
her. From the very first frame, Lawrence brings an intensity that could
melt Oscar gold. This movie calls on Ree to be a victim, a fighter, a
strong mother figure, an insecure daughter, a fierce enemy, a good
friend, a frightened little girl and a proud young woman, among many
other roles at various times. And Lawrence knocks every single one of
them out of the fucking park.
It’s also worth mentioning that like Precious, Ree is really the one
in charge of her house, but for different reasons. Precious had an
absentee father (when he wasn’t raping her), a lazy and abusive mother
and a baby of her own to take care of with another on the way. Ree, on
the other hand, has two young siblings to raise, in addition to her
incurably insane mother and a father in prison for cooking meth.
Precious is on a journey to start her own life and Ree is out to keep
the life she’s built from collapsing. These are the differences that
define both movies.
To be fair, the rest of the cast is outstanding. Garret Dillahunt is
always amazing and this role is no exception, though I found him to be
rather under-utilized as the local sheriff. Kudos also to John Hawkes,
playing Ree’s uncle “Teardrop.” Sometimes Teardrop is Ree’s worst enemy
and sometimes he’s her strongest ally, but he’s always unstable and
always great to watch. The cast is very small as is usual for a
low-budget movie, but the characters are all well-developed, well-cast
and they all get their chance to shine. Nevertheless, it must be
reiterated, this is very much Ree’s movie.
This single-minded focus becomes apparent upon remembering the
background “whodunit” story. See, the central conflict of the story is
focused on Ree’s father, who’s put up his family’s house on bail before
skipping his court hearing. This means that unless Ree can get her dad
to court or provide proof of his death within a couple of weeks, she and
her family will lose what little they have. Now, a few clues are
provided as to exactly what happened to Jessup Dolly, and one character
claims to arrive at a conclusion during the movie’s denouement — though
he never shares it. In fact, the movie pointedly seems to avoid the
mystery aspect, choosing instead to leave the clues for the audience to
seek out and piece together if they’re so inclined. Ree doesn’t care
about what happened to her dad, she just wants proof that he’s dead or
alive. The movie feels likewise and thus essentially treats his fate as a
If I have one complaint about this movie, it would be about the
screenplay. Specifically, I have a problem with that most heavy of
screenwriting burdens, exposition. The movie chose to make its
exposition as scarce and unobtrusive as possible and I respect that.
However, this makes it very difficult to tell exactly how some
characters are related as well as the motivations behind some actions
and who’s holding what grudge why. This makes the movie impossible to
watch passively, even for a second.
I’m not gonna lie: It’s not an easy film to sit through. This movie
is very dark, though there are just enough moments of courage and
compassion to keep it from being a complete downer. All things
considered, this is a very strong Oscar candidate and I know that I’ll
be outraged if Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t get a nod. If you’ve got the
stomach, check it out.