Friday, July 13, 2012

Winter's Bone

Up until its final shot, Winter's Bone (2010) is a bleak, grim, and cold picture. Set in a poverty-stricken area of the Ozarks, the film shows us a world of almost unrelenting misery and divisiveness. The only industry anyone appears to be working in is the production of methamphetamine, which a number of the characters are addicted to; houses and cars are left to rot and rust; children are neglected by their parents; women are kept subservient to their husbands; and violence against and among family members is common. The drama of the movie isn't that this way of life is overturned or rectified, but that an individual acted with dignity in the face of all the hardship.

Written and directed by Debra Granik, Winter's Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence (in her first big role before gaining more mainstream attention with The Hunger Games) as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl looking for her father after he appears to have jumped bail, which he supported by leveraging the family home. If he no-shows a court appearance, the  family loses the house. To find her father, Ree goes up against a very insular, dangerous society that doesn't like it when people, especially women, talk.

Ree is a character of resolve, determined to find her father and protect and raise her younger siblings. She's smart and focused and has aspirations of enlisting in the army, but even before her father's disappearance, things are tough with little chance of improving. Early on, Ree takes the family horse to a neighbor, asking for feed because it hasn't eaten in four days, and the family is always low on cash. Even if she finds her father alive, Ree is not going to reunite the family for a happy ending; finding him or proving he's dead will avert the Dollys from becoming homeless, but it won't raise them from destitution. Every step of the way, she's told to walk and let it go, but she remains steadfast. The alternative is to lose what little she has.

We get a few hints about Ree's father. We learn he was cooking meth and involved with some shady people, but the movie wisely doesn't bog down with the details of drug-dealing and crime. It's just part of the background, soaked into the lives of these people that it goes without saying. This world is cold and grey, the trees stripped of leaves and fruit, and everyone seems to be bearing some kind of inner hurt. These characters aren't stereotypical rednecks and good ol' boys. They realize their squalor and aren't proud of some of the things they do.

Plenty of scenes are tense and occasionally hard to watch.  After refusing to listen to a warning, Ree is beaten by three women (it's against some unwritten code for men to beat women) to the point she loses a tooth, and her face remains swollen and bruised the rest of the movie. We don't see the whole beating, just the beginning as a beverage (coffee, alcohol?) is flung in Ree's face and  she is dragged off. The shot sequence ends with Ree hauled into a barn, the door closed behind her, and we hear her screams while looking at a long shot of the barn. You just know something bad is going down. Later, Ree is forced to participate in a squirm-inducing act when she is brought to what may be her father's corpse.

Winter's Bone is bleak, grim, and tough. The same story elements - girl on a search through the wilderness - could have made for a thrilling adventure tale, but Granik instead turns the film into an unflinching gaze at misery and determination.

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