Winter’s Bone (Blu-ray)
Winter’s Bone is a thriller, but not in the conventional sense. It doesn’t have twists, shocking revelations or action sequences. Its pace is deliberate, and its style is low-key. The film won’t work if you sit back and wait for it to wow you. You have to pay attention to the details and to the pauses when people leave things unsaid. The tensest moments often occur when no one is speaking, but their faces show them thinking about what’s going to happen next.
Two things make the film a standout. The first is a star-making lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, the seventeen-year-old eldest of three children on whose shoulders the very existence of her family comes to rest. The second is the desolately beautiful Ozark Mountain locale in southern Missouri, the original setting of Daniel Woodrell’s novel. As director Debra Granik observes, this is “the kind of land in which survival is not obvious”. The film gets that sense of danger into almost every frame, while Lawrence conveys the depth of character – not wisdom, not worldliness, not even cunning, just sheer determination – that is essential to make it through alive.
Film Length: 100 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25 GB
Theatrical Release Date: June 11, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 26, 2010
Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is effectively the mother to her younger brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). She also cares for their mother, Connie (Valerie Richards), who suffered a mental breakdown years earlier from anguish over the illegal profession of their father, Jessup. Like many inhabitants of this impoverished region, Jessup ekes out a living in the crystal meth trade.
One day, the local sheriff, Baskin (Garret Dillahunt from Deadwood and Life), drives up to the Dolly house and informs Ree that he can’t find Jessup for an upcoming court date on his latest bust. Worse, Jessup pledged their house and land for his bail bond. If he fails to appear, the Dolly family will lose their home.
The rest of the film follows Ree as she attempts to track down her father, all the while continuing to care for her family. Director Granik takes the time to show you the basics of scraping by without any income in these environs, as Ree provides Ashlee and Sonny with “survival training”, including basic skills like shooting a hunting rifle, skinning a squirrel and cooking potatoes. Meanwhile, Ree has to prevail on her best friend, Gail (Lauren Sweester), to borrow her husband’s truck so that she can start making inquiries. It’s a complex negotiation.
No one is forthcoming about Jessup. Ree’s neighbors, Sonya and “Blond” Milton (Shelley Waggener and William White), who worked with Jessup in the meth trade, offer charity and hard stares, but nothing more. Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), another meth dealer, is no more helpful, and when Ree tries to see “Thump” Milton (Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall), the big boss of the region, she’s blocked by Merab (Dale Dickey), a formidable member of the Milton clan, who sends Ree home. Jessup’s former girlfriend, April (Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, almost unrecognizable here), is friendlier, but she can’t offer much in the way of useful information. The bail bondsman, Mike Satterfield (Tate Taylor), just wants his money.
But the single most frightening person Ree encounters is her own uncle, Jessup’s older brother, Teardrop. He’s played by John Hawkes in an intense performance that couldn’t be further from his mild-mannered shopkeeper on Deadwood. Everyone gives Teardrop a wide berth, because he’s widely known as a crazy S.O.B. It’s a reputation that works to his advantage, but Ree can’t fathom why Teardrop is so uninterested in his brother’s whereabouts or the plight of his nieces and nephew. There’s more to Teardrop than first appears, though, and he gradually reveals himself as the film progresses. Late in the story, Ree tells him that she’s always been afraid of him. His response is unexpected and, for Teardrop, almost affectionate.
Jessup’s whereabouts are obvious early on, but how to extricate the family from their predicament is not. At one point, Teardrop suggests to Ree that she quickly sell off the land to timber harvesters, but that night she has nightmares of trees being cut and animals fleeing. As hard as this life may be, this is Ree’s home. She’ll fight to keep it.
One of the striking features of this society is the precise delineation of obligations and responsibilities between men and women. “Ain’t you got no men could do this?” Merab asks Ree. Ree doesn’t, and because she’s doing what’s deemed a man’s job, too many people make the mistake of not taking her seriously. At one point, Ree considers joining the army, hoping to buy some time with the $40,000 recruiting bonus. She meets with Sgt. Russel A. Schalk, a real-life army recruiter who shot his scenes by interviewing Lawrence in character as Ree, varying his questions on each take. It says a lot about the subtleties and surprises of this remarkable little film that, of all the men Ree encounters, Sgt. Schalk is the only one who immediately takes this seventeen-year-old’s measure, gives her good advice – and treats her with respect.
Superb. Winter’s Bone was shot with the Red One digital camera and finished on a digital intermediate. This Blu-ray was clearly taken from the DI without an intervening analog stage, and the key word is “clearly”. There isn’t a hint of noise or interference, and the image is stunningly detailed throughout the frame. The only exceptions are shots where cinematographer Michael McDonough deliberately framed objects so that light would fall away from them, and in those shots the light fades to deep, inky black.
The film’s color scheme is precise, with a careful mixture of warm earth tones that represent the land and the people, with cooler bluish tones that convey the harshness of the season and the surroundings. A comparison of the finished film to the unfinished footage in the documentary and the deleted scenes reveals how much of this effect is achieved in post-production, but the work has been done with precision and reproduced faithfully here. (At the end of the commentary, director Granik speaks with admiration of the hard work done during post.)
Despite the use of a BD-25 and a generous helping of extras, I did not detect any compression issues or digital artifacts. This ability to use the available space economically no doubt owes much to the film’s digital origination. Having seen the movie theatrically, I can honestly say that the image on this Blu-ray presents the film better and more faithfully to its source than a film print.
The soundtrack for Winter’s Bone is subtle but complex. As related on the commentary track, the chief sound mixer was almost fanatical about using authentic effects recorded in the Missouri location. Because it’s an isolated, country location, it’s also quiet. Ambient noise is present, but very much in the background, except for the occasional bird call, rustle of leaves or similar forest noise. When man-made noises intervene – a car, an axe, a wood splitter, a boat, a chain saw – they can be startling because of their contrast.
Sometimes the soundtrack opens up. Musical interludes are woven into the narrative, because music is an integral part of this world. When Ree and Gail look up Jessup’s former girlfriend, April, there’s an impromptu “pickin’ session” underway in the house where April is living. The musicians are all local country performers, and the sound fills the listening space. There’s a striking scene at a livestock auction, where a barrage of sound (human, animal and mechanized) blasts at you from all sides. (The high volume is a plot point.)
Layered sparingly throughout the track is the elegantly mournful score by British musician Dickon Hinchliffe, whose credits include Married Life, Last Chance Harvey and the middle chapter of Red Riding Trilogy. It’s perfectly suited to the film’s mood.
The film’s economical dialogue is clearly represented. There is nothing to fault in the DTS lossless track.
Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Debra Granik and Director of Photography Michael McDonough. Granik and McDonough chat amiably with few pauses. They focus primarily on the technical challenges of shooting the film entirely in real locations on a schedule of twenty-four and a half days, and on the extensive and essential assistance they received from numerous residents of the Missouri locales, whether as advisors, musicians, providers of locations and props, or actors (many with no prior experience). In the case of Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, who played the pivotal role of Thump Milton, Granik says that they considered a number of professional actors for the role, but Hall, who was local, completely redefined their understanding of how the character should look, behave and even think.
The Making of Winter’s Bone (HD and upconverted SD; 16:9 & 4:3) (46:38). An unusually detailed documentary that follows the crew on location and contains a number of gems, including a few deleted scenes not included elsewhere on the disc. Among the subjects covered are working with kids and pets; working with people who have never acted before; and casting the film (including excerpts from Lawrence’s audition).
Alternate Opening (SD; 4:3). (1:29). This alternate opening was shot in Super8 format and resembles a dream sequence that remains in the finished film. Stills from the sequence are used in the final credits.
Deleted Scenes (HD) (10:17). There are four scenes, each preceded by a text introduction providing background. While they’re of interest, it’s easy to see why they weren’t included.
“Hardscrabble Elegy” composed and performed by Dickon Hinchcliffe (SD; 4:3). In format, this resembles a music video. The song is instrumental (it’s the same one that plays over the disc’s menu), and it’s set to a montage of images of nature and local Missouri people with their pets.
Music Credits. A list of credits, musician websites and further reading.
Trailers. The film’s original trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Biutiful, Tetro, Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray, The Next Three Days and Lionsgate on Blu-ray. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also separately available from the features menu.
Winter’s Bone received rave reviews but limited theatrical distribution. Inevitably, now that it’s reaching a broader audience on home video, there will be the usual backlash comments that the film doesn’t live up to its “hype”.
What “hype”? Tiny distributors like Roadside Attractions can barely afford 140 prints, let alone enough of a promotional budget to constitute “hype”, which generally refers to “extravagant” or “contrived” publicity. “Hype” is what major studios buy when they spend millions to get the best possible opening weekend for a Jonah Hex or a Killers or a Life as We Know It. But Winter’s Bone played steadily on the arthouse circuit for four months, and no amount of money can buy that kind of performance. It means that people are seeing the film, liking it and telling their friends – who then go see it and like it and tell their friends. That’s not “hype”. It’s popularity.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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