In a backwoods world in the Missouri Ozarks so harsh and unforgiving that it takes one’s breath away, Winter’s Bone finds a heroine who could not exist anywhere else.
Seventeen-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in a flawless performance) is a de facto orphan saddled with crushing adult responsibility: two younger siblings, an addled mother who’s like another child, and a no-good father who’s worse than absentee. In trouble with the law, Daddy has jumped bail and put up the house and timberlands where Ree lives as collateral. This means that Ree’s family will have no place to live — unless Daddy shows up for court or unless Ree can find him, dead or alive.
That’s the setup for what turns out to be a white-knuckle thriller in which loyalties and motivations are a lot twistier than anything in Salt or Knight and Day, and just knocking on a neighbor’s door can be more audacious and gutsy than anything Angelina or Tom ever did.
Directed by Debra Granik and adapted by Granik and Anne Rossellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, Winter’s Bone casts a plot with the soul of a thriller in the natural light of a documentary or art-house character study. It’s bleak, slow moving, and doesn’t spell everything out, which is how these people live — but in its gradual, aimless way it ratchets up the tension to terrific heights, and its climactic twists come home with the force of a shotgun blast.
The age of moonshine runners seems quaint, almost romantic, in this chilly world of meth cooking, grinding poverty and violently enforced taboos. There is also honor here, a code of neighborliness and family ties, nearly though not entirely buried in paranoia and complicity.
It’s a world of scary people. People like Teardrop (John Hawkes, also utterly persuasive), Ree’s uncle, a brutal, ruthless addict who’s more complicated than he seems, and Blond Milton (William White), the local patriarch who’s like an evil psycho version of Uncle Jesse from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Even so, within Ree’s world are occasional rays of light. Above all, Ree herself, who is proud of her heritage — and, judging from her example, rightly so. In particular I love her interactions with her younger siblings, such as the sequences in which she teaches her brother how to use a squirrel rifle and shoot squirrels (“kneel down like you’re praying,” she tells him) — something every young boy wants to do — but then also the following scene in which she teaches him to gut the squirrel for cooking, something no young boy wants to do. When he balks, she is mercilessly insistent: “There’s gonna be a bunch of things you’re going to be scared of that you’re gonna have to do.” That’s life as she knows it.
Ree is the best thing in the film — the best thing in this Ozarks world, though she’s also profoundly of that world, in her self-reliance, capability, in her awareness of and respect for the lines she has to cross in her pursuit of her father. Along the way she receives warnings that she well understands but cannot heed. Whether her father is in hiding or something has happened to him, it’s a secret that someone doesn’t want coming out. More than once someone tells her “Go home,” but she won’t have a home to go back to if she fails to produce her father.
Ree is heartbreakingly brave and self-possessed in increasingly intimidating situations. It’s not that she’s not scared. She is. But it has to be done, and there’s no one else to do it. Still, it’s not a world for seventeen-year-old girls to wander alone; even one of her adversaries asks her, “Ain’t you got no man to do this?”
Still, she’s so young, and it’s too much for her. In perhaps her lowest moment, Ree turns in desperation to her mother, silent and withdrawn in dementia, and, in a rare outward display of weakness, tearfully pleads with the woman who birthed her to help her — just this once — and tell her what to do.
Among many standout sequences is one involving a sympathetic military recruiter to whom Ree turns in her desperation for money. His compassionate professionalism is a welcome breath of fresh air, and a stark reminder that the morbidity of Ree’s circumstances is not the whole world, and not all male authority figures are like the men Ree knows.
Then there’s an electrifying standoff at a roadside traffic stop between a man with a badge and a man without one, a confrontation that makes a far greater impact without a voice being raised than countless shootouts and fisticuffs in any number of other films. (This scene struck me especially because I was reminded of a similar real-life incident involving a traffic stop and a self-described redneck with whom I worked construction many years ago in North Carolina. These things do happen.)
Not all the memorable scenes are so intense. Gopnik captures moments of ordinary life in this Ozarks world — bluegrass players at a birthday party; Ree splitting firewood; her siblings on the trampoline in the yard, happy and blissfully unaware — that have stuck in my craw even longer than the horrifying incidents. An extraordinary tale of an America unknown to most of us, Winter’s Bone is at times hard to watch, but harder to forget.
P.S. For the end credits, the filmmakers chose “We’ll Understand it Better By and By,” a gospel hymn by Rev. Charles A. Tindley, son of a slave and one of the founding fathers of American gospel music. The song is full of “somber skies and howling tempests,” of “Want of food and want of shelter / Thirsty hills and barren lands.” While it looks forward with faith and hope to the time when “morning comes / When the saints of God are gathered home,” it is realistic about our limited perspective here and now: “We are trusting in the Lord / And according to God's Word / We will understand it better by and by.”
Paying tribute to Winter’s Bone in a 30-second rhyming review presented some challenges. I decided to riff on one of the bluegrass songs in the film, although without instruments (and with only 30 seconds to get it out) I had to make some adjustments to the rhythm and melody.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.