Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.
Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.
In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.
To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.
It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.
You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.
All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.
Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl. It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.
In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.
So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it. In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.