Better than Moonshine
It’s tempting to search for universal themes in a film like Winter’s Bone, set among dirt-poor rednecks in the Ozarks, a mountainous, wooded region that spans from central Missouri to northern Arkansas. But everything that is great about Debra Granik’s film—and there is much—derives from the uniqueness of its setting, and the specificity of the characters’ motivations and codes. Stripped of its local color, Winter’s Bone becomes a drab and barely credible detective story.
As imagined by Granik, the Ozarks are a forbidding place. The trees are leafless, the ground crunches underneath each step, lawns—if you can call them that—are littered with vehicles and trash. Everyone owns a gun, if not several, and the only available occupations appear to be the military, the police or making crank. Somehow, every walk is uphill. This is surely not a full portrait of the Ozarks—the region is home to Wal-Mart and a healthy tourism industry—but it appears to be an accurate reflection of a particular kind of poor, marginalized community. Daniel Goodrell, a former Marine who has lived in the area for much of his 57 years, wrote the novel on which it is based.
The heroine is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old woman forced to care for her younger siblings and her effectively catatonic mother after their father was jailed (again) for manufacturing meth. Ree is as self-sufficient as an unemployed high school dropout could possibly be, but still relies on occasional donations from friends and relatives. After her dad Jessup’s most recent arrest, though, he put up the family house for collateral on his bond—and disappeared. If she doesn’t find Jessup within two weeks, she and her family will be homeless.
After this admittedly schematic inciting incident, Ree transforms into a truth-seeking crusader who will stop at nothing to discover her dad’s whereabouts. Fearless, tough, uncorrupted by drugs or alcohol and possessed with an unwavering sense of moral authority, Ree is an easy heroine to root for. Her flawlessness makes her about as plausible as John McClane, but the 20-year-old Renee Zelwegger lookalike smartly underplays Ree’s righteousness. Her most powerful moments come during wordless reaction shots.
The search for Jessup gets a bit monotonous after a while, as there are only so many ways a hard-looking distant cousin can say, “You shouldn’t be sticking your nose where it don’t belong.” Granik gives us little direct access to Ree’s thought process, so the audience has no idea why she seeks out this cattle farmer or that meth dealer. More rewarding are the scenes of Ree’s and her family’s daily survival. In one memorable sequence, Ree takes her younger brother and sister squirrel-hunting. She has her 5-year-old sister pull the trigger and her brother yank out the guts after Ree skins it. Granik nicely balances a feel for the family’s deprivation with a sense of their closeness, creating a hard-nosed but affectionate portrait of life deep under the poverty line.
The story picks up after Jessup’s brother Teardrop (John Hawkes) joins Ree in the pursuit of her father, or at least his remains. Hawkes is brilliant, as intimidating and gruff here as he was craven and respectable in Deadwood. In bold contrast to Ree’s ascetic stoicism, Teardrop is a raging, coke-snorting loose cannon. His violent unpredictability injects some needed suspense into a story that threatened to become narratively inert.
Like the other less-than-perfect characters who inhabit Ree’s world, Teardrop serves as a vehicle for the expression of the codes and mores of Ozark redneck culture. Granik’s and Anne Rosselini’s script doesn’t spell out their arcane rules of honor, instead sprinkling them organically throughout the film, or asking us to infer them from characters’ seemingly irrational actions. One of the film’s great pleasures is figuring out the redneck code, so I won’t give the rules away—other than to say their mores have more in common with prison culture than with mainstream American morality.
Whether by design or by budget, Granik’s film stock is bleached of vivid color, offering a palate that ranges from gray to brown. While the story is told from the perspective of a confident Ozarks native, Granik shoots, edits and scores the movie to maximize the audience’s sense of dread. Like Deliverance, Winter’s Bone is littered with lingering close-ups on weathered, ugly faces, inviting that same sense of fascination and disgust that John Boorman’s film elicited so well. I’m not entirely comfortable with this backwoods exoticism but there’s no denying its effectiveness as a filmmaking technique.
Winter’s Bone’s suitably brutal climax links together the film’s thematic concerns of violence, honor and survivalism without compromising the tone of understated authenticity. If the film’s final scene veers a little too close to a kind of Spielberg-ian sentimentality, Granik can be forgiven. Spielberg’s middle-class heroes never had to eat squirrel.