American indie films are becoming better and more interesting as the years go by. As studios become ever more reliant on big blockbusters and sequels, the smaller end of the market has become vibrant as anyone over the age of 15 seeks out an alternative to a film with ‘3’ at the end of it, or something in 3D. This effort is very much in the vein of No Country For Old Men or Simple Plan, but actually resembles more closely a recent tale, the excellent Frozen River. It’s set in winter, it’s downbeat, bleak and steady of pace, but like Frozen River it’s utterly convincing and beguiling.
The set-up is pretty simple. Set in the backwoods of Ozark Mountain, a 17-year-old girl, Ree Dolly, is acting as the only adult in her tumbledown shack. Her dad has disappeared, owing huge amounts of money to everyone, her mum is a basket case and Ree has to feed and clothe her two young siblings, the horse and the dog. Worse, unless she can find her father- or his body – the bond will expire and their house will be repossessed. Ree has no option but to walk, hitch and drive across the bleak countryside to try and find him, knowing that he was a dissolute drug dealer and all-round loser. Ree discovers an austere world of drunks, down and outs and lushes, all trying to scrape a living off of the uncompromising land. Her uncle Teardrop (Hawkes) advises her to forget her search, claiming it would be better if her dad were dead in the woods somewhere. It’s all check shirts, toothless grins and desperate, dark bars, yet somehow director Granik makes Ree’s journey utterly riveting.
Despite barely being a woman, Lawrence plays Ree with amazing conviction and precision, never pleading for sympathy however desperate her life gets. And desperate it surely is, at one point she is forced to show her younger siblings how to shoot and eat squirrels, as they are the only foodstuff. Ree is never prettified, she is always completely without make-up, wrapped up in cheap winter clothes and spends the last half hour with a black eye and swollen lip. Her quiet determination to look after her family and keep her house is a master class of understated acting – it’s almost anti-acting in fact. Lawrence is clearly going to be a massive star.
The only obvious criticism would be the lack of sympathetic male characters, but actually that would be too easy, and not true – an Army rep, who Ree turns to as she tries to raise the money to keep her house, gently and sympathetically talks her out of joining up. Also her uncle, Teardrop, may be a dope-smoking borderline tramp, but he does what is in his power to protect Ree. His clutching of a rifle when approached by a policeman is a heart-stopping moment. Granik’s other huge weapon is her sense of place – it’s a Spartan setting certainly, and of course the action happens in winter, but there are a couple of shots which suggest a sliver of hope. One character mentions that when Ree loses the farm the woods it stands in will be razed to the ground, followed by some truly stunning shots of trees against a grey sky. Like the shooting of Lawrence, it’s not pretty, but it is strangely haunting. It’s not for everyone, and does require some patience, but this is a slow-burning joy. Powerful stuff.