I've got no love for the term "torture porn". It's reductive to a good horror movie, and is generally misattributed to movies by people who don't actually watch genre pictures. I'm sure someone, somewhere has coined the term "depression porn" (or perhaps "poverty porn", in this case) to go along with it, and it's basically the same story: too simplistic to paint the full picture. But did I think of it while watching Winter's Bone? Absolutely.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, a young girl forced to raise her two younger sisters while tending to her ailing mother. Her father, Jessup, is missing, and several people are looking for him. Most importantly, a bail bondsman shows up when Jessup misses an important court date, informing Ree that if he isn't found within a few days, the family's house will be taken away. Despite her myriad of responsibilities at home, and the apparent pit of secrets she'll have to crawl into, Ree takes it on herself to unravel the mystery of where her father went in order to save the only useful possession her family has left.
One of the things I like best about Asian ghost movies is the sense that they believe evil can stain the very fabric of reality. My take on films like Pulse and Ringu is that once human beings cross a certain line, the result is basically against nature, and the place in which those actions occurred is forever changed. I got that same feeling in Winter's Bone while Ree and her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) visit locations her father once occupied on his trip into the ether. Director Deborah Granik shows us the husk of a house destroyed in a meth explosion, and we can practically feel the darkness hanging over it like a cloud, even though the people are long gone.
Much has been made of Jennifer Lawrence's performance, and she's certainly not bad, investing Ree with a believable type of internal strength. However, I also saw her give an equally impressive performance in Lori Petty's film The Poker House, which just happened to deal with a somewhat similar type of family drama. She's good in both films, but in Winter's Bone, she and everything in the movie feels just a touch on the nose for my tastes. In particular, the character of Merab (Dale Dickey) struck me as drifting far off into caricature more than once, with all of her "darlin'"s and "child"s, but seeing as I seem to be the only person who was bothered by this (most of the other critics I read went out of their way to state the opposite), maybe that's just my own personal lack of exposure to real, live, Missouri residents.
I have always liked John Hawkes, and he gives the more compelling of the two lead roles, playing a man who is willing to admit that he was, and perhaps still is a bad person, with a myriad of poor decisions behind him he'll always have to live with. There isn't an ounce of artificiality or treacle in the way he reluctantly helps Ree get out of one or two potentially explosive encounters and nudges her in the right direction, because Hawkes lets you feel all the factors pulling him in that direction, such as guilt for his brother and acceptance of who he is. The actor looks positively haunted, frail, and gaunt, but at the same time he's got so much fire and brimstone in his eyes that the viewer simultaneously believes he could take out anyone who stood in his way if he wanted to.
I suspect Winter's Bone is a film that will grow on me. I watched it several weeks ago, and enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. I thought maybe the film was too oppressive, too dreary, too uninhabitable. Yet even today, the film is as fresh in my mind as it was right after that initial viewing, having captured some part of my imagination. Granik may pile on the sense of downtrodden despair and wintery atmosphere, but, "depression/poverty porn" be damned, the result is more affecting than exploitative, clinging to the viewer's inside like the lingering traces of a heart-stopping, icy cold.
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