Director/Coscreenwriter: Debra Granik
By Roderick Heath
Since few swallow the sentimentality with which Dickens used to leaven his bitter reportage from the fringes of society when applied to our contemporary world, social realism in mainstream moviemaking these days usually grasps onto genre conventions, particularly crime stories, to get the point across without alienating the mass audience. Or even an independent film audience. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, is one such film. Like an increasing number of independent dramas, it elucidates the grottier corners of American life, but here through a narrative where the dramatic stakes are suitably extreme in a thriller fashion, in encompassing survival and extermination as the only two options. Winter’s Bone has received a lot of plaudits, and whilst that reception’s been more than a tad overblown for a film that works mostly within the familiar parameters of the Sundance-fit little-people style of drama, Winter’s Bone chiefly succeeds as an intense noir tale, or perhaps, more accurately, the extended coda to such a story. Young heroine Ree’s (Jennifer Lawrence) probing is less concerned with avenging a crime or dispensing justice than it is with simply trying to work out what her own fate will be in the wake of machinations beyond her compass.
Ree, at 17, has been left to raise her young brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), because her criminal father seems to have gone underground, and her mother is a psychotic wreck, destroyed by the corrosive effects of poverty and the paranoid, sleazy, ineffably dangerous world that is the contemporary landscape of the Ozarks, where moonshine stills have been replaced by crystal meth labs. Ree doesn’t know where her father is, and would perhaps not care all the much if it weren’t for the fact that the local sheriff, Baskin (Garrett Dillahunt), has informed her that if her old man doesn’t show up for a court date, the family house and property that served as collateral on his bond will become state property, and she and her family will be out on their ears. Ree, stricken by fear and uncertainty, nonetheless sets out with undaunted purpose to find out what’s happened to her father. Her attempts to enlist the help of friends and neighbours, like her pal Gail (Lauren Sweetser) and Gail’s prosperous scrub husband Floyd (Cody Brown), and her obnoxious, obfuscating cousin Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), prove frustrating at best. Her initial enquiries to her uncle, known to all and sundry as Teardrop (the great John Hawkes), don’t get far, because, in spite of his fearsome reputation as a local tough guy and outlaw, he’s currently too deep in a meth bender to respond to his niece’s entreaties with anything but aggression and pathetic offers of financial aid.
What follows, whilst tense and exciting in sometimes the most visceral sense, has been described as an odyssey, but that’s not really accurate. An odyssey implies exploration and wonder: this is more like Backwoods Kafka, in which Ree moves about physically but keeps on encountering people who represent the same thing. Ree contends with a procession of stern matriarchs standing like guardian sphinxes to their minotaur menfolk, waiting within their houses with explosive potential, measuring the enigmatic nature of her predicament by the level of ferocity of the threats turned her way. Ree stands outside of this circle because of her age, which leaves her free of a husband or the given attitudes of the community, and because she has noted the ruination of her mother’s mental health thanks to her proximity to this vicious and uneasy world. Intrigues, power plays, and acts of vengeance flow like deep, potentially swamping currents around her, discerned more through scraps of cryptic information and the willfully brutal demeanor people put on to dissuade her from digging. Ree’s mission is clearly spelled out—either bring her father back for his court date or prove that he’s been murdered. All signs seem to point to her father’s having become involved with the most fearsome local godfather, “Thump” Milton (Ron Hall), but her attempts to talk to him are forestalled by his wife Merab (Dale Dickey).
Winter’s Bone extends a subgenre encompassing rustic pockets of the American community and explored in older films like Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1946), Henry Hathaway’s Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1948), and all those hicksploitation films of the 1970s, but retranslated into a modern, minimalist menace closer to Cormac McCarthy (particularly The Orchard Keeper). Usually such tales emphasised an odd mixture of a hermetic society with primeval maxims of clan and honour, balanced by a sense of communal solidarity and nature-child disingenuousness, in their son-of-the-soil characters. That solidarity is still apparent in the aid Ree gets from her neighbours in the form of free food and a willingness to take care of the horse she no longer has hay for. What’s left of the old-timey bluegrass culture is sustained by circles of elders gathering in living rooms. Fate here is as difficult to pin down as the truth, for Ree slowly discerns that her father has fallen victim to Thump’s coterie of thugs, but why and what she can then do about the imminent disaster about to consume the rest of her family, seems governed by forces that are almost metaphysically terrifying. When Teardrop comes out of his meth daze long enough to communicate with any clarity what he knows about his brother’s fate, he states that if he learns his brother is dead, he’ll track down the assassin and kill him, or die trying.
I was afraid Winter’s Bone would play like a sequel to the well-acted but tinny Frozen River (2008), but it’s a more terse and tougher film that avoids self-conscious sociopolitical strand-weaving (Ree doesn’t form any prickly relationships with Amerindian chicks, at least). What it has to say about economic degradation and necessity in the dead patches of the American dream is merely there to be found. The landscape in Winter’s Bone is near-apocalyptic, not picturesque, in its denuded, blasted, seasonal landscape. The area seems to have edged nervously into the twentieth century, halted at the cusp of the twenty-first, and then retreated altogether, bombed-out shacks and crudely fashioned homesteads, gutted machinery and strewn remnants of consumerism forgotten in favour of microeconomic endeavour. The only apparent path of upward mobility in sight is the military, and it’s easy to see Ree becoming another Lynndie England, but Ree’s tentative choice to join up is dissuaded by a sensible recruiting sergeant (Sgt. Russel A. Schalk) who advises her not to join up in a state of crisis. In many ways, Ree’s a heroine Sarah Palin would go crazy for, a proto-Momma Grizzly without pretensions, gifted at hunting to provide food, armed with fierce protective instincts for her siblings and her shattered mother, equally contemptuous of the representatives of the state as of the pushy, dissembling people standing in the way of her search. Granik tries to evoke Ree’s connection to her family property—in addition to their house, they own many acres of woodland, which they use as a food resource as well as a private space—as a kind of compensatory environmentalist touch, Ree anguished at the thought of lopping down all the trees and decimating the wildlife within for the sake of putting together funds that wouldn’t even save their property, but merely make any move easier. But Granik does this with a dream sequence that’s so clumsily rendered it’s like someone changed the channel to a Discovery Channel documentary halfway through the film.
Ree might be seen as an improbably pretty example of an empowerment emblem so beloved in these sorts of indie films: I would have liked more insight into how she ended up the least dysfunctional person in the Ozarks. But Lawrence imbues her with a charming, immediate mixture of teenaged fretfulness, wringing an initial pathos in her appeals to her neighbours that’s admirably toey, and swiftly evolving poise that comes to the fore the more bullshit and threats she’s handed. She comes perilously close to death in a sequence that suggests a mating of Sergio Leone and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)— she’s held captive by Thump’s clan after pressing just a little too hard, and when one of them asks for an idea for getting her out of this situation other than killing her, she retorts with a stoic drawl through bloodied, swollen lips with a measured pith that would make Clint Eastwood a little envious, “Help me. I mean nobody’s had that idea yet, have they?” Teardrop finally shakes himself out of his hypertensive daze and extracts her in a scene of mostly semaphored high-macho gamesmanship and pledges his responsibility for Ree’s future conduct. Granik builds paranoia and tension in the film with admirable skill, and her casting is particularly keen in the disparity between the rail-thin, yet disconcertingly twitchy, hair-trigger Hawkes and Hall’s bullish solidity, like a mobile mountain. The twinned moments when the roller doors in Thump’s shed, where Ree’s being kept, wind up, first to reveal Thump, with his monstrous bulk and self-evident toughness, and then Teardrop entering, suggest Granik could have a fair shot at reviving the Western if she wants to take a whack at it.
Ironically, the closest the narrative comes to resolving in a shoot-out is when Teardrop is pulled over by Baskin, both men clutching weapons, waiting for the other to make a move that will spark a long-gestating showdown, with Ree, in the seat next to her uncle, as bystander. Later, Baskin is more concerned that Ree not spread word that Teardrop backed him down—claiming he only retreated because of her presence—than about anything else that’s transpired in the film. Granik achieves an admirably terse sense of the newly sensible Teardrop making a kind of familial contact with Ree as her temporary, transitional father figure, even though he’s wearing his grinding sense of responsibility to the unwritten law of vengeance like an overcoat. His final scene, picking listlessly at a banjo he was once a master on and then handing it over to Ree before heading off to an uncertain fate with the knowledge of who killed his brother, is affecting without being mawkish. Ree’s already passed through Hell in journeying with Merab and her cronies to retrieve her father’s hands from the swamp where he’s been dumped, usable as proof to Baskin that he’s dead whilst not requiring the whole body to be produced or his last resting place to be revealed. Ree’s feelings for her father, rendered entirely opaque by her maddened quest and his absence, finally wells up as she has to hold up his arms so that Merab can saw them off in a scene that effectively crystallises both the personal drama and the nightmarish atmosphere into a singular ghoulish, grueling rite of passage.
The ghost of the kind of Americana John Ford celebrated lurks not merely in the Western-like confrontations, familial rituals, and secret men’s business found in Winter’s Bone, but also in moments such as when, a la The Grapes of Wrath, Ree and her siblings sort through old family mementos, including photos of her parents when they were young and courting, before committing them to the fire. The film is hampered a little by aspects that feel almost indefinably false, like the often too-cute efforts to evoke specific atmosphere in the Ozark patois, where everyone’s got some sort of folksy nickname like “Sweet Pea,” and the slightly too repetitious, simplistic reduction of the community to a melodramatic environ full of volatile, dismissive men and bruised but toughened womenfolk. Granik’s visuals are for the most part merely functional, but apart from that misjudged dream sequence, and when she’s got a grip on the important aspects of the story and the tensions contained within it, she wields a clarity and force that compels attention even when the instinct is to look away, and circumspection about violence and gruesome detail that reveals a judicious, empathising intelligence in her efforts. She makes the emotional impact on the characters the focus, and it’s very hard not to feel Ree’s frustration and outrage. There is still a dash of Dickens in the very finale, in which Ree, having laboured through such hellish circumstances, finds herself endowed with a handy windfall that will make things better, at least until she gets knocked up by someone like Little Arthur, and the whole thing starts again.