This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
One of the least publicised Oscar contenders of 2010, Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik) is a stark, unsettling and beautiful film. Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, it tackles a subject often overlooked by American filmmakers: the impact of poverty on the rural United States. Winter’s Bone draws its audience into a bleak, cold, country landscape, where deprivation and violence are balanced by courage and love.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a seventeen year old girl trying to support her younger brother and sister in the harsh Ozarks Mountain Country of the central United States. Her mother – withdrawn and depressed, and possibly addicted to methamphetamines – is a non-presence in the family home. Ree’s father, Jessup Dolly, wanted by the police for manufacturing crystal meth, has disappeared after being released on bail. Early in the film the sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) informs Ree that her father had put up their home as collateral for his bail. Unless Jessup turns up in time for his trial – or is proven to be dead – Ree will lose the house. Afraid that the loss of the home will mean she will no longer be able to support her family, Ree embarks on a mission to find out what has happened to her father. As she tries to pry information from the close knit local community, Ree is confronted by hostility, and is threatened with violence if she does not halt her search. And while Ree’s neighbourhood is characterised by aggression, there is also a vein of loyalty and strength running through the community that in the end helps Ree to find the truth she is looking for.
The beauty of Winter’s Bone lies in its visual simplicity, and its cast of complex, convincing characters. The film’s setting is a cold and often dim rural backdrop. The harshness of the environment (and the lives of the people that live within it) is ever present, in the constant chopping of wood for warmth, and the hunting of squirrels for food. Though life is hard in the Ozarks, there is also a loveliness to the blue bareness of the place. There are long, quiet sequences in the film that show Ree’s brother and sister – Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) – playing on a trampoline, or jumping across a bunch of hay bales. Winter’s Bone opens with the children playing in the yard at the edge of the forest, with the sound of a woman’s voice singing – unaccompanied – as a soundtrack. The bare music focuses the audience’s attention on the children, highlighting their simple happiness.
The most striking aspect of Winter’s Bone, however, is its complicated characters and the relationships that exist between them. Ree’s father, though he is physically absent from the film, is still a very strong presence that is felt in the reactions of all the characters as Ree questions them about him. His is the story of a man trying to support his family, caught up in cooking and selling crystal meth, and eventually becoming an informant for the police. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) explains to Ree, in reference to Jessup’s “snitching”, the complicated and unpredictable nature of life and character – “He wasn’t and he wasn’t and he wasn’t, and then one day, he was.”
Teardrop is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. He is a man with a lined face full of experience, and a body that is at once weary and full of the threat of violence. He is torn between loyalty to his brother and his nieces and nephew, and the hard world of crime and silence that he is inescapably caught in. One of the most compelling scenes of the film shows Teardrop in a confrontation with the sheriff. His stoicism and lack of fear in the face of law enforcement speaks volumes about his experiences in this unforgiving landscape, and he is played with great subtlety and strength by Hawkes. Characters such as Teardrop and Ree lend Winter’s Bone a depth and reality that make it a thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking, film.
Winter’s Bone was released in 2010 and runs for 100 minutes. It is rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.