Winter’s Bone (2010)
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik (screenplay), Anne Rosellini (screenplay)
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt
The tendency to name everything, put a level, segregate everything neatly into compartments is very much an American phenomenon. In American cultural psychology, things are always either...or. Therefore, at the first glance, it’s very difficult to conceive Winter’s Bone as an American film. The film is as removed from Hollywood as humanly possible. And how do you categorise the film — thriller, neo-noir? a morality melodrama? Writing in The Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw calls it hillbilly-gangster-realist-noir. It’s all those things; yet Winter’s Bone is a unpolished gem which defies immediate labelling.
The first few frames of Winter’s Bone can rival the setting of any post-apocalyptic horror films. The setting is the Ozarks mountains in rural Missouri. It’s winter and desolate. You see run-down cars gathering dust near dilapidated houses. There are sofas out in the open. Families still own horses, and hunt for food. It’s a place where the fabled American Dream forgot to make a visit. There are a few modern amenities, like electricity, fridge, but they all look like from another century. Where timbre is the crop, you can visualise the palpable poverty, and you also understand why the community, spread over the mountain (they are all related some way or other), has an unspoken criminal past, which must be honoured and protected.
Within this background, we are introduced to 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), the star of Debra Granik’s second film Winter's Bone (2010). Adopted from the eponymous 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and since has garnered rave reviews from critics. Some claim Lawrence is a sure shot candidate for best actress Oscar, and it’s not very difficult to see why.
The first fifteen minutes of the film establish the harsh environment of the heroine’s existence in no uncertain terms. Her mother is catatonic, those pills are not helping. She has two underage siblings. They haven’t seen their father for a long time. They have no visible income, and for food and wood, they are at the mercy of their neighbours, who proposes to adopt the brother, but Ree won’t allow it. She has a sense of pride which is not broken at the face of adversity. They look at the neighbour skinning a deer, the brother suggests if they should go and ask for some meat. Ree admonishes: “Don’t ask for things that aught to be given.” She is trying to survive on her own terms. She contemplates joining the army for the money you get for signing up.
One day, the Sheriff comes calling. This is always a bad sign. The Sheriff, little apprehensive to be in the neighbourhood, tells Ree the bad news: Her father, Jessup, when arrested, had put his house, and all his property in the bail bond. Now, he has jumped parole. If he does not show up within a week, the law will take house. Ree is pushed to the wall, and all she could say, “I’ll find him.”
Now, begins Ree’s journey to the clan members looking for a word on her father. A terrible secret lurks regarding Jessup, who used to cook crystal meth. Every time she tries to push for information, things become more complicated. There’s her uncle, Teardrop, she does not know how he feels about his brother’s family, there is one Trump, the arch-patriarch with whom no one wants to mess with. Ree is beaten up. This could hardly stop her. She has no other choice but to carry on. She cannot let the law take away their house.
At the end, Ree’s journey takes us to a lake in the middle of the winter night, to a terrible truth, and to a terrible act. To resolution. The resolution is not important, what important is the journey, and how director Granik charts it out for the audience, clinical, dispassion, and with a huge heart.
This is surprising how Granik handles such a volatile subject without any histrionics, without any forced action. The violence in the film lurks beneath the surface, and it’s so palpable that to show violence on-screen would be redundant. Even the scene when Ree is beaten up is off-screen. This restrain is admirable.
Same goes the way Lawrence plays Ree, stoic, practical, smart and not overtly emotion. In the entire film, she gets emotional just once, when in a weak moment, she asks her mother for help. She knows she cannot help, but she wishes for a moment, before taking the task upon herself.
John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, for the tattoo he wears, also brings out this ambivalence of his character. Everyone is scared of him; but he does not wear his aggressiveness in his sleeves, it’s his nonchalant that more dangerous than any threat he may issue.
Towards the end of the film, there is a scene between Ree and Teardrop where the uncle tells Ree that her father is dead and she mustn’t tell him the name of the killer even if she learns the truth. Otherwise, he would have to go after him, and that won’t be good. This explains a lot about the characters.
In short, Winter’s Bone is a perfect little film that needs to be seen and appreciated. It’s understated ferocity is to be seen to be believed. This film may be one of the reason why we should still have faith in independent cinema. There was a time independent cinema was the next best thing (Steven Soderbergh), then, in the new millennium, it all fizzled out. But, independent cinema is not dead, in US or elsewhere. Winter’s Bone is a testament to this fact.