Winter’s Bone is the best American film I’ve seen all year. By that, I mean a film with a look, feel, and pulse of an American sensibility—not the slick, cynical, corporatized swill that Hollywood passes for “American cinema.” Rough around the edges but haunting in sight and sound, dark but full of heart, and blessed with a subtle yet strong storytelling magnetism, Bone is one of the finer American gothic films ever made—or at least from the list that have seen the light of theatrical release. Did I mention the American angle?
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, the film has a certain lean, nuanced literary air in one sense, but is primarily about the cinematic powers of atmosphere and take-yer-time pacing. At its root, the story is simple enough, about the older caretaker sister in an impoverished backwoods Ozark family, seeking to find her father—out on bail for “cooking crank.” If he jumps bail, the family loses the house. The “seeking” for this mysterious father figure turns into a rite of passage, a metaphor and a cold reality, as she slinks through grim woods—the film was shot in rural Missouri—and grim family byways in scrubby, dark quarters.
Along the way, Debra Granik’s expertly directed film benefits from an unusually dead-on naturalism that enwraps the elements of texture, tale, and characterization. Acting is understated and extra-Hollywood, especially Jennifer Lawrence as the intrepid young Ree and John Hawkes as her grizzly lean uncle Teardrop. Composer Dickon Hinchliffe cooks up the perfect blend of mountain music earthiness and sonic enigma to coat the tale, and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s camera is a curious and “seeking” character in itself.
Mystery angle aside, Winter’s Bone takes its time to savor the regional flavors of Ozark life. We settle in for long stretches of an old-timey music jam in a humble living room, soaking up the meat-machinery of a cattle auction, the underpinnings of violence, and the peaceable sight of a still-happy young girl idly strumming an old banjo on a porch, which could seem kitschy on paper, but is heartwarming on film. Truth be told, it makes you proud to be an American.