Underrated: John Hawkes in Movie 'Winter's Bone'

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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.