Winter’s Bone (2010): United States – directed by Debra Granik
Rated R by the MPAA – contains some language, mature themes, some violent content
There’s a sparseness to Winter’s Bone, and a tone reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [review here]. Winter’s Bone, like certain scenes in Chain Saw, is also very cluttered. People live in run down homes, surrounded by stuff. Stuff is scattered across their yards, into the hills and trees surrounding their property. The inside of each home is even more cluttered with stuff. The grown-ups stuff consists of disused cars and school buses, and they, too, clutter the earth.
This is the world of Winter’s Bone, one in which there can be silence as the wind whistles through the trees, or gunshots echoing through the hills. Neither is strange. It just is. There’s a code, too, among the people who live in these Ozark hills. Kin means something, and so does keeping your mouth shut. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) understands both of these concepts, and attempts to make the most of one while adhering to the other.
Ree is seventeen, in high school sometimes. Mostly she takes care of her younger siblings, Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). They are twelve and six, and unable to provide for themselves yet. Ree teaches them how to cook, how to hunt, how to behave in this remarkably singular culture. Their mother (Valerie Richards) is useless, depressed and driven mad by their father’s troubles. And their father is Ree’s primary problem at the moment.
He’s been picked up for cooking crank, and not for the first time. He posted bail and then skipped. Unfortunately for Ree, he signed over the house and the land as collateral. If he doesn’t show up to his court date, the land and house will be gone, Ree and her family kicked out. Ree must find Jessup.
The majority of Winter’s Bone exemplifies Ree’s determination to hunt down her father. Her own family won’t talk, at least not at first. Her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), wants her to stop asking questions. He’s addicted, and misogynistic. He only says “shut up” one time with his mouth. No one else will talk. The local kind-of crime boss, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall) won’t even speak to her, as speaking leaves witnesses. The entire community is incredibly silent, wary of cops and visiting bond bailsmen. And wary of everyone they know, even kin.
Ree doesn’t have any success until Teardrop experiences a slight change of heart. After all, his brother is the one missing, and he suspects what happened to him. Eventually the truth, and the effort required of her, are almost too much for Ree to bear as she struggles to rescue her family.
It is incredible that there was no set dresser on the film. Each house was allegedly untouched, and the mise en scène is remarkable. The setting, the dialogue, and stoicism exhibited by everyone, all of it aids in crafting a realistic and terrifying atmosphere.
Ree is a beacon in this morass of ill-living. She may not be perfect, but she knows what she has to do for her family, and refuses to fall into drugs as everyone else has done. But she isn’t self-righteous or pious; drugs don’t factor in to saving her family or finding Jessup. And she never snitches on anyone, even if doing so might be considered the right thing to do in parts of America. In her world, nothing could be worse, and she is proud of her silence.
Winter’s Bone also does something unique, in how it portrays the real consequences of even mild violence (by the medium’s standards). After a character receives a beating, tender care is taken to remove teeth and blood, and painkillers are lovingly administered. There is more time spent on the convalescence than the actual violence.
Winter’s Bone ends with a little hope. The world isn’t fixed and perfect, suddenly. Instead, there’s hope that the family’s situation might be a little better. There are still drugs around every corner, and the children’s lives won’t be easy. But with Ree’s continued strength and perseverance, she just might be able to make it.
There’s an incredible schism between the men and women in the film, possibly more akin to fundamentalist segments of Islam than “modernized” America. As Ree walks around, house to house, another woman comments, “Don’t you have a man to do this?” But no, Ree is alone, even if she shouldn’t, by her community’s standards, be making such inquiries. Men rule their households with an iron fist. A man says no, and doesn’t need to give an explanation. Further questioning leads to threatened violence, and then degrades more steeply. One of Ree’s friends comments that things change when you get married, but Ree only takes this to mean that you’re trapped and have no mind of your own. The parallels are intriguing, if not all that solid.
Winter’s Bone isn’t a fun movie to watch, but it is engaging, and impressively crafted on a small budget. Lawrence is a standout as a newcomer, and Hawkes is as convincing as the scenery. The rest of the supporting cast seems to have been chosen from small towns in the Ozarks. There are a few problems with the film, but most of them seem to arise organically from the setting. Characters’ motives seem vague, but they are bound by a set of mores vastly different from what an average viewer might know. The story meanders, and there is little exposition to clarify relationships between those with whom Ree speaks and her father. But in each case it is Ree who shines, all the brighter for existing in such a desolate landscape.