Wherever we turn, accolades pour down for Natalie Portman's performance in 'Black Swan.' In one fell swoop, she wiped away any post-'Professional' discontent and reestablished herself as one of Hollywood's leading actresses. But though her performance is noteworthy, and certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination, it has overshadowed the true gem of 2010 cinema: Jennifer Lawrence's Ree in 'Winter's Bone.'
At the age of 20, Lawrence leaped from supporting player in films like 'The Burning Plain' to breakout star, becoming the second-youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee (after Keisha Castle-Hughes in 'Whale Rider'). But what's remarkable is that it isn't for any leading female character we've seen before. It's not the beauty hidden behind makeup and tasked with being unremarkable, the crazy mind, the shrew or the emotional romance. Ree's strength and talent transcend the bounds of cinema, in a role requiring that Lawrence herself become an unstoppable and dynamic heroine.
On paper, Ree might sound like a girl we're familiar with -- a high-school age kid who had to take on added responsibility in the face of her mother's disability. She works, so she can't play; she must care for and teach her younger siblings. Ree has not only become the parent, but also entered into a self-perpetuating cycle -- teaching her brother and sister the same skills and knowledge that already ripped her out of childhood. But that's only the start of it.
She's not a character we want to see, or even that we feel comfortable seeing. Ree's young face can't mask a wildly mature resolve and presence that usually comes after decades of struggle. As director Debra Granik slowly unfolds the setting, with Ree tending to her chores and sneaking longing peeks at her fellow teens at school, the viewer becomes restless. We want to leave from the first few moments -- we're already suffocated by the stillness and dreary monotony. We're not entertained by the screen, we're emotionally impacted by it.
But as we, nestled in our comfy seats, feel uncomfortable and insecure, the ever-growing danger in Ree's life only seems to make her stronger ... but she's never presented in that larger-than-life fashion most of our heroines are presented. She doesn't have super-human strengths or smarts. She can wield a gun to hunt for food, but she's not a fighter. Yet she's arguably the toughest woman cinema has seen because she found her biggest strength and nurtures it -- her resolve. She is emotionally and sometimes physically beaten again and again, but Ree always finds that still center to make her continue on, a grittier embodiment of Lawrence's own mentality. She once told W Magazine: "If something seems difficult or impossible, it interests me. I've always had this dangerous mentality of never even considering the thought of failure. If I want something, I just go until I get it."
As dynamic as many are, heroines often seem removed from the action they prevail over. They have stunt people to fight the baddies, imaginative backdrops to give a comforting sense of fiction, special effects to keep the actress from the grittier aspects of her character's experience. No, Jennifer Lawrence wasn't really beat up, and didn't really have to perform the grisly act that helps end the film. But beyond physical danger, she lived as Ree. She cut wood. Her worn hands chopped potatoes in the air. She learned to skin a squirrel. There's no creative editing for that, just an actress partaking in the acts of her character, not hiding behind the tricks of Hollywood. As Ree says: "There's stuff you're gonna have to get over being scared of." Though the actress wasn't thrilled with the gritty acts she'd have to perform, none of that apprehension is visible in Ree.
Between Granik's directorial touch and Lawrence's performance, Ree's quest to find her father never seems theatrical, carefully plotted or overly dramatic. Instead, it plays out like a beautifully shot documentary, comfortable to follow its focus through the quiet just as much as the dramatic. And there's little to no resemblance to the heroines who came before her. Unlike Portman's Nina, who has a history of ballet and cerebral thrillers to inform her performance, Lawrence had her character and the real people living in the Ozarks.
She took an amazing story of a true 16-going-on-40 character and managed to make her strong and real, rather than untouchable and larger than life. Lawrence managed to make Ree determined, but not impervious to the pain of her situation. She made Ree's moments of sadness and fear never seem weak. Lawrence offered up the most subtle emotions and mannerisms to turn a stoically determined young woman into one of the most dynamic female characters we've had the fortune of seeing.
Also be sure to check out: Oscars Made Easy: Why You Should See 'Winter's Bone'