(Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, US, 2010, 100mins)
Beauty and brutality in nature are often bedfellows. Good dramatists understand that human beings aren’t so different and it doesn’t hurt to underscore such parallels by exploring those communities that exist on nature’s doorstep. Debra Granik’s drama is a brooding, grubby bit of mid-western anthropology that introduces us to an impoverished white working class township in Ozark mountain country, and it’s no place to be poor, female or a squirrel. At least one of those three makes for great eatin’.
Being vaginally endowed is a problem for the teenage Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s struggling to fill the void left by her absentee and felonious father. She has no choice but to look after a sick mother and younger siblings and this in a highly patriarchal culture; a place of checked shirts, hunting rifles and cattle markets. Daddy’s defaulted on his bail bond, having disappeared, and this means the family home he put up as collateral is now at risk. What follows is Ree’s uncomfortable and dangerous journey to find her father, fending off threats from locals who’d rather she didn’t ask too many questions. After all, questions demand answers and answers demand thought, the gear for which is as rusted as the farming equipment in this town.
Granik’s film is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell but you could infer a literary connection without this knowledge from the sumptuous evocation of bucolic horror and the finely drawn characters. There are many devils in these details, from the emaciated horse on Ree’s land to the Poker nights in the local houses, accompanied by banjo and violin, taking place just a few yards from a barn where a girl might be getting beaten up by a group of thick ridge-on-forehead, hairy-tongued hunting enthusiasts.
The sense of place goes a long way toward ratcheting up the unease. It’s quite a thing to be in this listless and somewhat lawless backwater, where civilization is young and sometimes just a fanciful idea. This is a part of the world where mountain lakes are dumping grounds for bodies, where the trees seem to rust and the brutalised women are themselves brutal, throwing hot liquid into the faces of inquisitive girls.
Lawrence plays Ree with a quiet stoicism. She’s a proud host in an inhospitable land. Her vulnerability generates plenty of tension, with Granik presenting a range of characters that oscillate between the predatory and the furtive.
The hunt for the Father, a human maguffin, is secondary to the realities of Ree’s put upon existence. What hope for someone who wants to do the right thing when the only means of escape is to join the army, complete with a $40,000 incentive payment? You can see the allure of such a deal in a place like this and it’s an interesting aside; a note on how the US military recruit cannon fodder from the most impoverished parts of Middle-America with the fewest opportunities and the highest proportion of uneducated households.
If you’re too young to join the army or have no inclination to do so, you can always marry into misogyny. Ree learns that “It’s different when you’re married”, questioning her friend’s servile attitude to her domineering and aggressive husband. That Ree’s been forced to take on a male role, including teaching her younger brother and sister to hunt, only serves to make her more vulnerable as the quaint moral code that affords certain protections to women, while denying them basic freedoms, is relaxed enough to make her a legitimate target for reprisal.
Winter’s Bone is an absorbing and socially conscious piece of work, underwritten by the constant threat of violence. It’s emotionally draining; an assault on nice middle class sensibilities, complimented by pallid photography. The colour scheme is suitably rustic and there’s the minimum of orchestral support, something of an indie cliché perhaps but nevertheless highly effective in this instance. It’s the awful moments of silence you remember.
Jennifer Lawrence is close to heartbreaking in the leading role, marking her out as one to watch, while John Hawkes’ Uncle Teardrop embodies the macho emptiness that characterises the community. Brutal and dense, this does, in character terms, truly cut to the bone and is consequently a rewarding and often uncomfortable look at the underside of the American mid-west.
The Ooh Tray reviewed this film at The Edinburgh International Film Festival.