Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel Winter's Bone, is a film noir set in the modern-day Ozark mountains of Missouri. The story follows 17-year-old Ree, de facto caretaker of her 12- and 6-year-old brother and sister, and their mentally ill mother, as she tries to track down their deadbeat father Jessup, who's on the lam after his latest arrest for cooking meth. Jessup had placed the family's house and property up for his bail bond, and if Ree can't track him down before his court date, she'll still be looking after her family herself, but without a place to live. This quest takes her to all the most dangerous members of her extended family, all embroiled in the drug world, all telling her to stop asking questions.
The most fascinating thing, for me, about Winter's Bone, is the linear path Ree finds herself on. Her situation in act one is as bleak as her muted surroundings, and as the story progresses, I never really wished for the dramatic change in circumstances that you might expect from a story that begins with a plucky, hard-on-her-luck gal. Just from seeing the kind of world she inhabits, you know not to expect that she'll win some contest, or uncover the massive inheritance no one knew about, or sell her hair to the highest bidder or anything. All you want for her, in the end, is to be able to raise her siblings, and look after her mother, without the fear of their home being taken away. They'll still have to eat squirrel, and accept donated venison from the neighbors, but you can take it as a happy ending.
Along the way, Ree does endure some majorly harrowing events, and she introduces us to a type of character not often seen outside of HBO. John Hawkes (who somehow looks like the lovechild of Adrien Brody and Harry Dean Stanton), as Ree's uncle Teardrop, portrays a character perfectly balancing sadness, anger, and compassion. He is terrifying in one scene, a welcome savior in others. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, does an excellent job playing her strong character, but much more is asked of Hughes, and he meets the challenge well. These performances sit perfectly against the crushing realism of the setting, with blackened husks of exploded meth labs, smooth faces of teenage moms, and lofty aspirations of joining the army as the tapestry of life in the Ozarks.
As far as the noir-esque qualities of the film, I would definitely classify it as such, despite the complete lack of "slickness" so often present in the genre. Ree is a victim of circumstance who goes on a search, and each person she meets is more hard-nosed than the last. Style-wise, there is only one sequence, when Ree is running through the holding pens at a livestock auction, that captures the kind of chiaroscuro that noir films tend to borrow from German Expressionism. Unlike Brick or Veronica Mars, this movie is not neo-noir, as it lacks the self-referential winks of other modern films like that. There is no Kristen Bell voiceover about dames (XOXO). This paragraph basically served as my excuse to exercise my film student muscle, which I get to do surprisingly rarely working in Hollywood.
If there is a screening of Winter's Bone near you, I would advise checking it out. I look forward to seeing Lawrence and Hawkes in more performances, too. I can't picture her as the young Mystique in the upcoming X-Men: First Class just yet, but I'd imagine the blue makeup does a lot for changing how you see certain actresses (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos-O'Connell, for instance). Incidentally, I like supporting female filmmakers when they put out a good product, and the critics and Sundance jury seem to agree about this one.
*Note: an associate reminded me last night that film noir is a style, not a genre. She's right, but I'm not going to edit this whole thing.