Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Underrated: John Hawkes in Winter's Bone

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Underrated: John Hawkes in Winter's Bone

by Tony Dayoub

Embodying the danger, mistrust, sadness, hopelessness, provincial territoriality, and concern with kin found amongst all of the criminal colluders in Debra Granik's bleak Winter's Bone is Teardrop, the bitter crank dealer played by John Hawkes. That Hawkes steals every scene he is in despite playing every one of them opposite young Jennifer Lawrence (who has been rightly getting all of the notices a budding star-in the-making gets) is not necessarily such a big surprise. Hawkes has been a working character actor for just over twenty years now. It is how little mention is made of his work here which prompts me to address it.

I first remember being conscious of Hawkes in an episode of the long-cancelled (but never forgotten) TV show, Millennium (1996-9). In it he plays an ex-con who gets drafted into committing a series of murders on orders from someone who fancies himself the victims' vigilante judge. A quick look at his IMDB resume proves this wasn't the first time I had seen him. But it was the first time his lanky frame, beak-like nose, and expressive eyes—all used to portray a character's generosity as often as his apprehensiveness—made an impression. Over the next decade, I would learn to enjoy a film or television show all the more because it featured an appearance by him. In 2006's Miami Vice he memorably played Crockett and Tubbs' snitch; distraught over the realization that his wife was in danger after trading too much information with a dangerous gang, he jumps in front of an oncoming semi on I-95, becoming a smear on the pavement. On Deadwood (2004-6), he played Sheriff Bullock's business partner, Sol Star, the gentle, astute yin to the sheriff's violent, insensitive yang. He even made an underutilized extended cameo on Lost this past season as one of the Others, another in a series of appearances by the former cast of HBO's underappreciated western series.


In Winter's Bone, seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) struggles to feed her younger brother and sister in the Ozarks, while caring for a disturbed mother and ignoring the absence of her meth-dealing father. But only until the local cop (Garret Dillahunt) stops by to warn Ree that dad put their house up for his jail bond and is now nowhere to be found. Determined to find him and force him to fulfill his responsibility to the family if to no one else, she soon runs afoul of the locals, clanlike neighbors and family who warn her not to look into the matter. Hawkes' Teardrop is her uncle, a threatening figure who initially proves to be her greatest obstacle to finding out the truth.

Hawkes takes advantage of his unpredictability to fashion a character one can't easily peg. In the first scene where Ree tries to enlist his help, Teardrop quietly dismisses her plea by matter-of-factly stating she is a woman, second-class, incapable of demanding anything from him. As she continues unabated, he lunges towards her, placing her in a choke-hold as he whispers veiled threats with his mouth mere centimeters from hers. A distinctly incestuous undercurrent runs throughout the film after that. Continuing her investigation solo, Teardrop sneaks up behind Ree again while she uses a noisy wood-splitter, a sense of foreboding and fear for her safety pervading the exchange that follows, which ends with Teardrop giving her some cash to tide her over. Surprisingly, when Ree gets a little too close to the local crime boss' dealings, it is Teardrop who unexpectedly comes to save her from execution, but not before the bad guy's henchman declares he doesn't want to stick around to deal with the dangerous uncle.


In each successive scene of Winter's Bone, Hawkes reveals a bit more about Teardrop, preserving the mystery which attracts us to the character, but attenuating the lethal quality just as Ree begins discovering this man does care about her and her family. And Granik harnesses Hawkes' performance, turning a boilerplate plot into a fascinating sociological study in which the creepy Teardrop ultimately represents the contradictions of the fearsome, but loving, Ozark people who populate Winter's Bone.

9 comments:

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

What a pleasure to find someone appreciate the work of John Hawkes. I couldn't agree with you more. He is sorely underappreciated in the world of cinema. He was a standout for me in the Deadwood series. He was a joy to watch.

It's funny you write about him as I just finished viewing The Perfect Storm and Hawkes was a real highlight in a film where characters really weren't given a great deal of time to develop. The overrated George Clooney, though I'm told he's come a long way, is one of the real acting lowlights in the piece.

Hawkes is a treasure that I hope gets his due someday. In the meantime, thank you for all of the recommendations concerning this fine actor. I look forward to seeing his work that I missed. I have my Millennium box set ready to go. Best, SFF

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah, he's great with what little he gets (a reason I skipped over mentioning that) in THE PERFECT STORM.

Thanks for stopping by SFF.

Adam Zanzie said...

I confess that I didn't recognize Hawkes in this film--the only other movie I had seen him in was Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, and in that movie he both looked younger and seemed to have a more timid voice. So when he appears in this film with that raspy voice and the gray hair, gray mustache, etc., I kept trying to figure out who he was.

It's a great film, by the way, and one of the year's biggest surprises. I'm only ashamed that, as a Missourian, I didn't even know about its production here. I also was kind of astonished by the movie's portrayal of Missouri and am already hearing comments from people who say the film has made them never want to visit this state. Personally, I had no idea there were areas of Missouri like this. Maybe that's because it's filmed in the small towns and counties down near Springfield.

Adam Zanzie said...

Forgot to mention that I didn't recognize Sheryl Lee, either. And that's fucking Laura Palmer.

Tony Dayoub said...

Re: Missouri, Adam... any dope who says that is speaking out of pure ignorance. Haven't been there myself, but every state has its unusual territories and its more recognizable ones.

Nice to see Sheryl Lee, huh? And I'm really glad she hasn't gone down the botox route, which unfortunately may be affecting her ability to get more roles. I hope not. She is still quite sexy.

Jason Bellamy said...

I completely agree with your praise for Hawkes. Best supporting performance of the year (at least off the top of my head). The film is so good (especially in this weak year) that it's easy to overlook his role. He makes what looks to be a kind of stick-figure villain into a flawed human. Compelling stuff.

Tony Dayoub said...

Wow, Jason. I didn't mean to go that far in my praise for Hawkes. But given this year's films, you might be right, with arguably only SHUTTER ISLAND'S cast giving him any competition in this respect.

Anonymous said...

I didnt recognise Hawkes at first, and then realised there were 2 deadwood actors in the film, but hawkes blew me away with his portrayal of teardrop, this is oscar worthy.

Anonymous said...

It was a wonderful supporting year with Renner,Ruffalo,Bale and Hawkes all playing very flawed,very tragic and very human characters and Rush being Rush...as to 2011 being a wek year,hope that person puts that into perspective...2012.Extremely loud up for picture n supporting actor?war horse up for picture but not director,screenplay or actor? Good God...