Winter’s Bone is getting no shortage of accolades from critics, and there are certainly things about the film that are done well. But it’s not a perfect movie – it left me disappointed for reasons other than the meandering pace (which I’d guess is what the film’s fans will brush away as the only reason the less sophisticated viewer might not appreciate the movie). It disappoints me to see reviews such as one by Flixter user filmaniac filmaholic, which backpedals: “I’d like to end this by saying that my low rating for this critically acclaimed movie is most probably my fault & it’s due to my failure to get the point of the movie.”
It’s not a crime to dislike a film despite its critical acclaim. So let’s just get this out of the way now: Winter’s Bone is slow. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but when it is done poorly it can be. I was comparing the movie to director Jeff Nichols’ spectacular Shotgun Stories even before I began watching, but the viewing experience only reinforces the comparison. Nichols’ film is equally slow and it also takes place in the deep South, a place where poverty is the norm and the threat of violence simmers constantly in most every interaction. The characters alone in SS were riveting to me, making the quieter moments stunning on their own. WB does not manage that same effect – there’s much standing around, pointless wandering. The characters are not strong enough on their own to maintain interest.
Which is not to say that Winter’s Bone fails entirely. A sense of menacing tension, although absent from much of the first half of the film, grows and grows in the second half. You really do get the sense by that point that anything could happen and it keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting for the explosion to happen. The strong performances of Jennifer Lawrence as main character Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old who must search the Ozarks for her deadbeat meth-cooking dad in order to save her house, and especially John Hawkes as Ree’s frightening uncle, provide a great center to even out an otherwise bumpy ride.
But there are plenty of reviews that are willing to go on and on about the positive things about Winter’s Bone in lofty, aggrandizing ways. Flixter users Lewis C. humbly acknowledges that the film “may not be for everyone” because “there are no shoot-outs or florid romantic scenes. The moments of happiness are small, fleeting, and poignant.” I guess it’s silly for me to get irritated with that sort of talk – I’m sure I’m guilty of the same sort of talk (did you read my Speed Racer review?). Still, my point remains: there’s plenty of positive words to go around, so why not let me rain on the parade?
The plot is mostly amateurish. If it weren’t for the performances and the gripping tension late in the film, there would be little to enjoy here. Ree has to find her father in order to save her house, a minor twist on a common theme – I’m surprised she didn’t have to win a dance contest in order to get the money to save her childhood home. She’s given a very specific time-line to complete her task, then sets about meeting a succession of mostly bland characters. There’s something to be said about the family politics of the expansive Dolly family, but too often the things I imagined would happen were more exciting than what actually transpired. Though there is one magnificent scene involving a chainsaw, the rest of the film seems strangely unfulfilling. The tension is a hook, but what is there on a second viewing? There’s little that is truly original or creative.
I didn’t hate Winter’s Bone, but I also could not really enjoy it totally. I feel somehow obligated because of this to defend the few detractors. There are some very good things about this movie, there’s no doubt, but those things seem more incidental than elemental. That’s why I can’t get behind this film.