As a film critic, there are certain occupational hazards you have to face. Namely, that every time you sit down to watch a film, you risk the chance of wasting 90 to 150 minutes of precious time on a turkey. But then you aren’t done with said turkey. You then spend one to two hours writing a review about why the film was a turkey. And then, if you’re like me, you spend another fifteen to twenty minutes rehashing all of your thoughts about the same turkey on a podcast. For those of you keeping track, that’s up to five hours spent on one bad film. That’s a big chunk of your life spent watching, thinking, and writing critically about a film that can probably be summed up by simply muttering: “What a piece of crap!” I suppose spending hours of my life that I will never get back on movies like Grown Ups, Jonah Hex, and the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is what makes me latch on to a movie like Winter’s Bone, and work overtime to get people to watch it. This is the second time I’ve written about the film for a website, I’ve talked about it on two podcasts, and I’ve encouraged all my friends and family to watch it. Why would I do this for a film that I have no personal investment in, either financially or emotionally? The answer is simple enough: to this point, Winter’s Bone is the best film of the year.
I’m not alone in this view. Winter’s Bone was universally hailed by critics, a difficult feat for a film to pull off. It’s understandable why the film received such a gracious reception from the critical community and did surprisingly well at the box office. It’s a dark film noir that manages to have a true emotional center in Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old girl charged with keeping what remains of her family together. Equal parts detective story, character study, and slice-of-life observation, the film benefitted from a star-making performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and a career-best turn by John Hawkes as her uncle, a frightening, meth-addicted man of violence. That he is one of the few people that Ree is able to count on says a lot about the dark places to which the film is willing to venture.
But for me, the greatest strength of the film was the fact that it was shot on location in the Ozark Mountains. Taking place in and around the small town of Forsyth, Missoui, director Debra Granik captured a stark reality about the overwhelming poverty that has adversely affected many of the rural areas of our country. This was the element of the film that affected me the most. It’s also the point where I need to come clean.
I grew up only seventy miles from where the film was shot. Like the characters in the film, I lived in a very poor, rural area. Thankfully, I didn’t grow up in poverty (and if I did, my parents did a great job of hiding that fact from me), so no one in my family was forced to resort to cooking meth to put food on the table. I lived in southern Missouri for nearly the first 28 years of my life before I moved to Chicago. Even as I put my rural upbringing in the rearview mirror, I didn’t recognize the fact that I was basically reinventing myself as an urban liberal and that I was no longer a dairy farmer’s kid from the middle of nowhere.
After eight years of living in Chicago, the Windy City came to feel like home. Earlier this year, when I relocated to New Haven, I grew homesick for Chicago in a way that I never felt for southern Missouri. This didn’t surprise me because, quite frankly, I never liked living in my native state. What did surprise me was how many memories of my childhood had gone missing in my eight years away from Missouri. What was even more surprising was the fact that many of those memories came flooding back to me as I sat in, of all places, a darkened theater in downtown New Haven. I didn’t see that coming.
Maybe that’s part of the reason that Winter’s Bone hit me so hard—it nailed all the little details of what everyday life is like in that region of the country. From the rundown houses hidden away on dirt roads to the large, round bales of hay on which children chase each other, I found myself nodding in appreciation at everything that Granik got right. When I saw a detached garage with old license plates hanging on the doors, I had a brief moment of strange panic when I wondered if that scene had been shot at my childhood home.
For the last few months, I began to wonder if the reason I threw so much support behind the film was because of this connection to my childhood. Had I been blinded by an unconscious nostalgia? With last week’s DVD release of the film, I was able to watch it again. As it turns out, it stands up perfectly well on its own. This is a story that could have been set anywhere and, as long as the acting and writing were as strong, would have been a great film.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. Movies this good don’t come along everyday, especially from the low-budget indie world. The film industry is a business that responds to financial success. Winter’s Bone did better than expected in theaters. If it becomes a hit on DVD, that kind of financial success will be hard to ignore.
Or just watch it because it’s the best film of the year.
Matt Wedge is a film reviewer, New Haven resident, and co-founder of The Parallax Review, a totally awesome film criticism site.