One of the reasons the Oscars is always so exciting is the potential of new blood shining amongst a sea of weathered vets, maybe even pulling an upset and taking home the gold for themselves. There aren’t many newcomers in this year’s actors categories, but the name that stands out the most is Ruth Negga, who’s up for Best Actress for her role in Loving. She faces some stiff competition in Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman, Emma Stone and Meryl Streep, and even if she doesn’t win, she will hopefully have an exciting career ahead of her just having been included in the conversation.
Jennifer Lawrence is hands down one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today, and it’s all thanks to her breakthrough lead performance in the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone.” Though she received the Best Actress nomination six years ago, it was Natalie Portman coming up roses for Black Swan – she did convert on the second bite of the cherry, however, with Silver Linings Playbook two years later. But Winter’s Bone is more than just a calling card for Lawrence, as it is a thriller filled to the brim with mystery, suspense and much more.
The acting across the board is phenomenal, but aside from Lawrence, special mentions must go to John Hawkes for his portrayal of Teardrop. Hawkes isn’t the most physically imposing human, but beyond the grizzled face and rough voice, he truly knows how to assert himself in the frame, so the viewer is left with playing a guessing game as to which side of good and bad he will fall in any given moment.
Still, considering this was just her second lead performance in a feature film, Lawrence was not only thoroughly deserving of a nomination, but also of winning on her first nomination. Throughout most of the picture, she plays Ree Dolly as a stone-faced teenager who unfortunately must bear the burden of taking care of her family. And though she isn’t afraid to bare her teeth when necessary, her stoicism never exhibits itself in the same über-masculinity trope that detective flicks have exploited for decades. It was that sort of confidence and assuredness in such a nuanced role that left people talking, all the way from Sundance to the Oscars a year later.
Additionally, the film’s particular flavor of detective mystery is what makes it and it’s source material so interesting. In many respects, the narrative and other aesthetics come together to form an Ozark noir, if you will – just without the steamy, sensuous seduction and chiaroscuro, and considering the locale and outlaw type characters, one could classify it as a Western noir. Throughout the first act, we begin to see a complicated web of secrets and deceit form through each successive character Ree questions, building the basis foundation our story.
With themes that include poverty and power, as well as a look into the seedy underworld of methamphetamine cooking, Winter’s Bone is as thoroughly steeped in cynicism as the finest Bogie blockbuster. Fortunately, such pessimism rests not in the people, themselves – though there are some truly questionable characters – as director Debra Granik’s sympathetic eye allows us to see hope through the rubble amongst the sort of company it’d be easy for other filmmakers to vilify.
Instead, the negativity rests in another familiar target: the setting. And it isn’t as though the milieu in and of itself is depressing in its desolation, either. Rather, it finds such emotion simply through interplay of saturation levels depending on the time of day in a scene. Quite reasonably, the film makes simple use of the orange/blue color contrast through natural (dull blue) and practical indoor (orange) lighting.
Correspondingly, daylight scenes are stripped of life in their hues as Dee asks around from one potentially hostile situation to next, while nighttime scenes border on abrasive with seemingly harsh orange tones that suggest imminent danger. But because of Granik’s treatment of the characters, that tone never becomes needlessly overwhelming. It’s a subtle twist on the basic fundamentals of noir that makes Winter’s Bone such an exciting, if also understated adaptation.
So take a look at the current Oscar field as you make your predictions and consider the number of underdogs throughout, because the Academy Awards can only be as exciting as the collective odds for each of them. Yes, Lawrence faced an uphill battle at the 83rd Awards, and all of the other women up for the prize fully deserved it, as well, but how exciting would it have been if she beat out the competition – at such a young age, too? Sometimes, as familiar as it is, the underdog overcoming the odds makes for a better narrative.