Great American movies come along rarely. By great I don't mean simply good, I mean stellar examples of what cinema should embody, as told through the American lens. There have lately been few movies that commit to offering a truly unique and visceral experience at the theater, especially any that offer a view that is unique to this country, providing both sentimentality and rational explanation as well as thrills and compelling drama as part of the setting.
Prior to seeing Winter's Bone, the last film that struck me as truly American was the excellent Shotgun Stories. Brutal and fully downbeat, its tale was one that would be hard-pressed to find a home outside of the US. Before that, it was likely Paul Schrader's Affliction, itself being an excellent narrative on estrangement and patronly abuse. After holding out no further hope for the cinema of my home country, I was ecstatic to see the first trailer surface for Winter's Bone.
Debra Granik's Winter's Bone succeeds on every level the aforementioned films did. As a story that is both distinctly American, and as a success of down-tempo film, wholly depressing and dark in its setting. Following the story of Appalachian Ree Dolly, a 17 year old wise beyond her years due to familial neglect and virtually raising two siblings without help from either parent. Her mother driven mad by a falling out with her father, and her father an absent presence prone to cooking methamphetamines in derelict houses and camper trailers on the fringes of their society. Ree is tasked with finding her father, out of jail on bail and having put up the family home to cover his escape from the law.
Assuming he fails to show at court, the house is lost and Ree and her siblings will be forced onto the street, caring for their mother who can't care for herself, with neighbors that won't risk themselves to help. Her quest takes her all over the small rural community that she calls her home, in Appalachia where strangers are ignored and asking the wrong questions can get you hurt. A community where it's faux pas to enter another's household until you've been invited in, and extended family are just as strange as the folks you don't know.
Immediately the undertaking is frowned upon by those in the town familiar with Ree's family's issues, and help is hard to come by. She is thrown out for asking too many questions from her uncle Teardrop, played scathingly by John Hawkes, who has proven here he is well suited to carry a film. His Teardrop is a menacing embodiment of emptiness, mistrust, and hatred. Even when he's calm, he looks like he could just as well explode, and comes right to the brink several times, even over it. As an emaciated junkie, his preformance perfectly balances that of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. She is perfect in her role and you never question the validity of the part she plays throughout the duration of the film.
Movies like this are hard to make convincing, as they're either caricatures (Next of Kin) or way too melodramatic (Winter People) to make affecting. Winter's Bone never once parodies the culture that it puts on display, making the environment natural and the people that dwell within it at once terrifying and respectable for both their inner pride and dogged accomodation as well as an innate distrust of outsiders, especially the law which is regarded as a pox, even if the visit the law bestows was unwanted or unwarranted in the first place.
Winter's Bone goes a lot of places during it's runtime, and bearing in mind the hero is a 17 year old girl exposed to an easily corruptible society of thieves and narcotics cooks, you root for her through the duration, regardless of how bleak the outcome may appear or how beaten up she becomes in the interim. Her spirit is indomitable, and reflects that unbreakable ideal that helped make this country what it currently is. It's sad and heartbreaking, emotionally distressing and ultimately depressing, but it's always convincing and as a portrait of a side of Americana many will never see, it succeeds better than any film of this sort ever has. See it, not because I loved it (which I clearly did), but because not seeing it would be to miss one of the greatest films this country will produce this year, if not one of the greatest films any theater globally may end up showing.