Winter’s Bone has the rare distinction of being one of those movies with a simple premise and relatively little action that still manages to engage the viewer emotionally. In fact, the film’s simplicity is its greatest asset in a world where film and overstimulation seem to walk hand in hand. At the heart of it is the story of a young girl’s sacrifices and struggle to provide for her family when her father goes missing, leaving her in charge of her 2 younger siblings and an invalid mother. The plot itself sounds borderline melodramatic, but it’s the way that the story is presented that makes it such a compelling and understated movie.
The main character, Ree, is played with such weight and emotional resonance by Jennifer Lawrence. In fact, for most people, if they’ve heard anything about the film it’s usually praise for her performance. In the instance of Winter’s Bone</b., this praise is well deserved. Ignoring the enormous amount of preparation that went into this role, such as learning how to skin squirrels and chop wood, Lawrence is charged with an even more daunting task. The tagline of the poster is "Talking just causes witnesses." In case you didn't get it from the tagline, this is a film that embraces silence in its characters, so Lawrence is charged with bringing emotional strength to the role of Ree with relatively little dialogue to get her points across.
Its moments like these where Winter’s Bone is most effective. It manages to tell a story with little help from the character’s actual voices. I’m a movie lover who values the art of subtlety, so this was a welcome change to some of the other movies that take a more obvious approach. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t thinking of the clock from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Still, Winter’s Bone proves its artful direction with the number of things that characters could simply say or explain, but are confined to a knowing glance or an intense stare.
This idea of the value of silence even crosses over into the film’s sound design. The film captures the realism of the location in its sound design, but tends to limit it to the sounds of nature, which seem muted in the vast landscape of the Ozarks. There’s nothing extraordinary about the sounds or the setting, but the simplicity of it, when combined with the dull grays of the surrounding land, create an effective mood that seems visible in the film’s characters. The instance of the film’s one true deviation, where the loudness is embraced, is in the film’s conclusion and provides a stark contrast to all the moments leading up to it. It’s shocking as well as effective, but definitely unlike any other instances of sound use before it.
In a film that embraces its quiet, there are a great deal of difficulties that could arise. Perhaps the most difficult part of this undertaking is establishing personal connections between the people. One of the film’s most complicated relationships, the one between Ree and her uncle Teardrop, is given very little time for explanation. At one moment Teardrop is threatening her and the next he’s risking his life to save her. While this may make the film sound manic, the dynamic between the two isn’t ever fully explained, but serves as a sense of tension, which is alarmingly effective in the film. Like I said before, the film never seems compelled to lay all its cards out on the table and explain the film away to you, but rather, through subtlety and compelling acting it weaves an engrossing story. This makes Winter’s Bone a stunning addition to the film world and one that bodes well for the futures of its talent and its director.