Directed by: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik and Ann Rosellini
Company: Winter’s Bone Productions / Roadside Attractions /
Runtime: 100 minutes
The film is about Ree Dolly, a 16-year-old girl who is living with the tough realities of life in the Ozark mountains. She plans on getting into the military to get the benefits for her family. As his father is not around for most of the time and her mother is psychologically incapacitated, she takes over the responsibilities of both by raising her other siblings by sending them to school, providing their food, and teaching them small bits of knowledge.
The police arrives in their house, informing them that their father is missing. He needs to show up in court about some trouble he got in. If he won’t appear, the family will be evicted from their place. Determined yet fearing for her family, Ree courageously takes the task of looking for her father.
As she traces the location of her father, she gets involved in the syndicated underworld in the mountains.
The screenplay provides a sturdy foundation for the story. The dialogues felt natural and humane, and the events are plausible. Though the much more obvious aspects of the screenplay aren’t that showy, it’s the unfolding of events which I root for in this movie. The screenplay does not have the high intelligence that, for example, The Social Network has, but it makes it up for the story itself. There is unpredictability in how the events go after each event, and I thought that was brilliant.
But the effectiveness of the dialogue is not to be discounted. It all felt like taken from real life. Sure, this kind of screenplay has minimalistic style in it compared to other movies, but from the small talks of the characters, the screenplay was able to build up the character and emotional arc the film needed for us to believe what is happening.
The direction has a much more noticeable work, but is also subtle. When the screenplay isn’t giving much, the direction comes in with a smooth yet tense grip on the story. Each movement of the story is backed upon by sophisticated yet raw lensing and restrained editing to pile up tension after tension without becoming unbearable in any way. There are some parts in the film where you know the direction is holding back a bit, letting the actors get the real attention, yet, it feels that it should have to. It never felt wrong in handling the story.
Sometimes, it goes a bit too natural that you may think, and some others may think, that the direction in those particular scenes are less functioning, but those moments are the ones that captures the essence of rural poverty in the film’s setting. Things are of acerbic nature, but the heart of the film is still Ree, and having a woman as a director, I am sure Debra Granik deeply understood the struggles of Ree in this film that she also confines her with danger, and at the same time, frees her in independence.
The film is engrossing, and it’s largely due to the gripping and balanced blend of spontaneity and precision. The film felt like it was improvised, yet know everything was well-thought of. Now, how amazing is that.
The cinematography is bleak yet still understated. It’s not a showy effort from the cinematographer, but it was efficient in giving the film he atmosphere and mood that it needed to set the movie from the rest of other movies. There is always the hues of blue in it which gives a more cold feeling to the film. It may not have added anything to the story, but it did more than that – it told the story visually. It’s not the usual goal of cinematography, but because the screenplay is somewhat of secondary importance here, the cinematography aided the story for it to be told even with the lack of words.
The editing wisely uses the whole length of the film to compact everything it has to say and it has to show in that span of time without ever feeling like things are rushed. It also gave a moderated pace for the film that actually helped drive the story just the way it should have been – not too fast, but definitely not going to drag.
The music is, like the screenplay, also minimalist in nature. It never has a big moment in the movie, nor it was utterly explosive, but it creates an unsettling melody that resounds quite well in the film. Aside from the musical score that is so “in the setting”, if you know what I mean, the film also has the country hymns that give an ironically warm comparison with the film’s over-all mood.
The production design is simple yet it fleshes out a lot in the character’s conditions. Ree’s house is filled with stuff that feels like taken from another person’s stuff with the very same living condition. And the other locations as well – Teardrop’s house, the basement where Ree was beaten, and others.
The acting is uniformly excellent.
Jennifer Lawrence brings in a gutsy and intense yet sublimely relaxed performance in the lead role. She carefully forms her character in every scene with the grace that a young lady like her has and the sense of rigidness to convey the realities of her character. The performance felt so natural, like it was almost no-acting at all, on the good side, of course.
She keeps it all on a constant low that’s not too low to become lazy acting, but also not too high to make it look like a forced “natural” acting. And I actually see this performance as a perfect marriage of calculation and rawness, if there is any at all. She made things look so easy but when you try to assess it, you know only a talented actress like her can do it.
John Hawkes is gentle yet highly terrifying as Teardrop, Ree’s uncle. The first part of his performance is as intense as you can get. I’m literally breathless with his first scene. He’s like a mouse trap – one wrong move and he’ll get you. And the threat that he gave on Ree reached the height of maximum tension. I don’t know where did he get that power in acting, but I’m sure it’s his talent and skills as an actor that made him able to deliver such strong introduction to his character.
His next scenes where he became more open to Ree gave me the likable factor, but he steadily maintains the fatality that his instincts as Teardrop has. And don’t you ever challenge him – his scene in the car with the police is one helluva scene that in itself warrants him a nomination. He knows that he is in control of the proceedings no matter what the police does, but he’s like a lion – he would not hesitate to attack you if you come any closer. It’s such a strong scene that Hawkes was able to handle with mastery.
Dale Dickey is fantastic as Merab, one of the women involved in the underworld. When she enters the screen, she may give that welcoming exterior to Ree, but beneath her skin is a sharp, alert, and diabolical person. She won’t let you say words at her if she does not like it. That’s how Merab is – she rules over things. Yet, you can sense that tiny feeling of humanity in her that made us all believe that she actually means her help in the climax of the film. It’s a brief performance, but the impression that she leaves is utterly amazing.
Let me just tell you this short history of my relationship with this film before I give my grade – 1st viewing, I thought the film was lazy, not worthy of any recognition, Lawrence was impotent, 2nd viewing – one of the best independent films of the year, Lawrence was fantastic, 3rd viewing – one of the best films of the year, Lawrence is remarkable.
For this, the movie gets:
What are your thoughts? Do you agree or not?