dir: Debra Granik
It’s criminal that it’s taken this long for Winter’s Bone to be released into the cinemas of Australia. It’s a damn shame. Usually the length of time it takes certain films to appear here doesn’t bug me, because 600 flicks get released each year, and for every flick I’m not getting to see, there are dozens of others I could be seeing instead.
But there’s something about this flick that, on some level, makes me angry that I had to wait eight or so months before I could see it in the salubrious confines of the Cinema Nova multi-arty-plex.
The film itself, and the main performances, are better than fine, they’re great. There’s some problems arising with the ending, but I can forgive them since for around 100 minutes, Winter’s Bone, which is essentially a detective story, had me riveted to my seat. There’s not a fire, disaster or siren’s call of promised orgasmic pleasures that could have coaxed me out of that seat before the end.
On the other hand, I know these kinds of films that seem to focus on, shall we say, the salt of the earth, reek of condescension and insult to those who think they’re being exploited or mocked. It doesn’t strike me as relevant, but then, I’m not from the Ozarks or the Appalachian Mountains, and I wouldn’t know moonshine from shoe shine.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is just a girl in the world, just a seventeen-year-old girl, living in the boondocks of Missouri. Her mother is out of her mind and no help, and she has two younger siblings to look after as well. I guess from the perspective of Manhattanites, Californians and people living in Newport, Ree and her family live in abject poverty, perhaps because they don’t have a high definition tv of sufficient length, width or depth.
From my perspective, to be truthful (though I understand what actual poverty is, as opposed to what it looks like), they own their own house, and they have far more clothing and stuff than I’ve ever had in my entire life, so I guess poverty’s a relative scale. Sure, they have to shoot and skin squirrels for protein and sustenance, or accept venison (that’s deer, to the uninitiated) from the pitying neighbours for dinner, but they’re not in the gutter, are they? They’re not living in caves, are they?
With no disrespect implied or intended to anyone either from or with family in this particular part of the world, this film makes this bit of the world look like the most horrifying and dangerous place on the planet. I’ve seen footage from Afghanistan that hasn’t made me feel as uncomfortable and unsettled as this does.
And why? Well, it’s because we don’t just watch what transpires from Ree’s perspective; we are placed entirely within Ree, and see her battling the wretched powers that be, despite the fact that most of them are her own family. And every man, and even most of the women, carry with them the constant and unremitting threat of violence.
So much is shown, so much is implied. Every male character carries with them the threat of annihilating Ree or her world because of… well, a lot of factors. The film doesn’t shy away from blaming crystal meth for ravaging this community, but the problems obviously go deeper. Every female seems to live in mortal terror of the men in their life, and with good reason.
Ree has a healthy appreciation of how close she is sailing to the wind, but she has a mission, and she has young kids to protect. When it suits her, she can be all brash and bluff bluster, but when she knows just how potentially lethal the situation is, she also knows when to quail righteously in the face of evil.
And, damn, are these hillbillies evil. The impetus for the story comes from two factors: the cooking and selling of crystal methamphetamine is the main source of money in the area, and Ree’s dad Jessup, is a much in-demand cook, wanted by the law. His last arrest and imminent court date has placed Ree’s family’s meagre comforts in jeopardy, since his skedaddling means the bail bondsman can legally take their house which was put up as surety.
Ree’s quest, or investigation, comes down to needing to find out where the hell her father is. No-one wants to tell her a single thing about it, though. Every person she asks virtually threatens her, whether they’re men or women. They may be a tightly-knit community, but these noble people have no reluctance when it comes to swearing blood vengeance on the heads of those who cross them.
She, despite her youth, or perhaps because of it, is dauntless. Losing the house would mean losing any chance of her family, which she is the head of, staying together, and they’d all end up in the dirt. She asks the hard questions, and braves the darkest lion’s dens because she has very good reason to.
I remember thinking that despite the setting, and despite the gender and age of the protagonist, this is a classic detective story that has far more in common with Chinatown, or Brick, or any detective mystery where the protagonist spends most of the flick’s length searching for someone, and constantly being harassed or attacked by the people who don’t want that person found, for whatever reason. And I specifically remember when I was watching this, saying to myself, “this is pure genre, except she hasn’t been severely beaten yet / had her nose cut by Roman Polanski yet.” And lo and behold…
Though it follows some formula, the setting and the ‘reality’ that faces Ree predominates, so that the solving of the mystery of her father’s whereabouts has to take a back seat to what her ultimate objective is, which is to safeguard her much younger brother and sister. In which case, you wonder whether Ree really wants to find her father or not.
When someone spins her a story about how her father recently must have died in a cooking accident, and points to a burned-out husk of a house, Ree rejects the premise she’s being dealt almost with a strange pride “But Dad was known for never fucking up” she intones almost under her breath, countering the narrative she’s hearing with the upholding of her daddy’s expertise in the lucrative field of meth preparation. But her seemingly misplaced pride plays secondary to her natural intelligence, and powers of observation, which let her know the real reasons why the scenario is bullshit.
I delight in watching the adventures of clever characters, and Ree is certainly a great new addition to that fertile field. Still, because of the desperation of her situation, there is a scene that requires her to be slightly less bright that we took her for. I see the necessity of the scene, but I guess I forgot for a sec that she was just a kid.
Ree dreams of a release not from life but from the constant pressures assailing her family, and having heard that there are a few wars on, and that the Army’s hiring people and giving them a signing bonus, she thinks, however briefly, that this is a way out, because somehow they’d let a seventeen-year-old girl enlist and bring two kids under ten with her to a warzone. Stranger things have happened, I guess, in these wars and in others, but it makes her look fairly ignorant, which is a shame. I applaud the army recruiter they have talking to her, because he’s clearly an army recruiter, and not an actor, because he sounds too honest and too earnest to be anything but what he’s portraying. I admit to feeling quite moved when he clumsily explains to her that it would take more bravery to stay home and protect her siblings than it would to take up arms and fight in Afghanistan.
He’s right, but he doesn’t know how right. I have to admit that the way the story ends is both horrifying and anti-climactic, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the rest of the story, and though there’s elements of it that are dissatisfying, I can see why it was the right way to end things. I haven’t even really mentioned some of the strongest elements of the flick yet, and I really do have to at least note them. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) is a sight to behold, and the menace he carries with him and projects is something I haven’t seen in a long time. He turns from seeming like just another potentially violent and deranged hillbilly in Ree’s close proximity, to seeming like her protector, to remaining someone on the hair-trigger divide between bad craziness and insane carnage. He might look like a crazy homeless guy, but, good goddamn does he just radiate menace. A showdown between Teardrop and the sheriff is one of the most tense scenes I’ve seen in many a while.
On top of all the story machinations, it’s a well shot film, with a good use of setting and music, and it clearly has a respect for the area and the people that you might assume would not be there if it’s exploiting these hillbillies for fun and profit. There is nothing exclusive about the setting, because there are plenty of places in Western countries where whole communities seem like they’ve dropped of the map or at least back in time at several decades, where the government seems not to exist, and life is cheaper than usual. Sure, there’s family and community, but all that means is that the abuse is often kept in house, rather than being at the mercy of strangers. It means the people killing and tormenting, are doing it to their own. And yet some, like Ree, will still stand up for their kin as best they can.
A strong film, fairly brutal and bleak, but strong all the same. Perfect date movie for Sons and Daughters of the Soil.
9 times you would have thought Teardrop was the name of a Care Bear or a My Little Pony instead of a meth crazed maniac out of 10
(snorting a bunch of meth) “You developed a taste for it yet?”
(taking a long, considered time to answer) – “Not as yet”. – Winter’s Bone