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Non-Review Review: Winter’s Bone

In many ways, Winter’s Bone is the Best Picture nominee most typical of the modern Oscars (or, at least, the criticism of the modern Oscars). While The Fighter echoes the every man appeal of Rocky, The King’s Speech is the archetypal historical and “triumph over adversity” tale, The Social Network is classic morality tale with a modern sheen and True Grit is the nostalgic entry, Winter’s Bone speaks the “indie” attitude that we’ve seen become dominant in the past decade. It’s a film rich in atmosphere and mood, with a bleakness that threatens to escape the screen and devour the audience whole, but it favours this lush approach over pacing and engagement. To say it is glacial, is an understatement.

The road ahead is bleak...

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love here. This is a film that you feel. It follows seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly as she attempts to track down her missing father. He’s skipped out on bail, but he left the family property as collateral – if she can’t find him, she’ s out on her own, along with her two younger siblings and her invalid mother. Although she’s taking care of “two kids that can’t feed themselves yet” (in an environment where “survival” skills include handling a rifle), she herself has been hardened by her harsh surroundings.

As shot by Debra Granik, the cast populate a landscape not that far removed from the post-apocalyptic wastelands of The Road or The Book of Eli. Burnt out cars scatter the landscape (school buses amongst them), and you never have to drive too far to find a burnt out crystal meth lab. Even the forest out behind the Dolly property, which we’re assured is over a century old and a landmark that will be destroyed if the land is seized, is grey and almost lifeless (save squirrels). It’s a tough world, one where you have to do horrible things to survive – there are repeated shots of characters reaching their hands into places that they can’t even bring themselves to look at.

Can Uncle Teardrop shine a light on what happened to Ree's father?

And yet there are some strange moments. Ree needs to steal a truck in order to drive out of the dump she’s in (to a far more civilised world, where there are even hand-sanitizers on display), but she can walk the kids to a school that (while modest) has a huge trophy rack and a marching troupe. One would imagine that the school isn’t just sitting out there amid the wasteland we are constantly shown. Obviously the school exists to provide a contrast between the lives the kids have and the one that they can only dream of, but it’s strange to have it in walking distance when borrowing a truck to reach civilisation is a plot point. But I digress.

The individuals here are as harsh as the landscape. The film really succeeds at constructing a portrait of the kind of people who must survive out there in the wilderness. Everybody is a predator. Everybody has an angle. When Ree starts asking around about her missing father, nobody has any answers, but they all offer her trinkets (money, drugs, food) – a sign of collective guilt. This isn’t a tightly knit community founded on mutual respect and understanding, they are all tied together by fear, loathing and guilt.

Essential survival skills...

Even the next door neighbours want something from Ree, which is crazy (since she has nothing to give). “We could take Sonny off your hands,” the neighbour offers, referring to Ree’s kid brother. It’s easy to see why the children are taught to handle guns. The whole community is one sick and twisted family tree (“some of our blood, at least, is the same,” Ree pleads at one point). I lost track of the connections about an hour in, but nearly everybody is related in some way. And family means dark secrets bubbling away under the surface.

It’s a community where producing a single hand isn’t proof that the fugitive is dead. He could have easily cut it off himself, after all. “They know that trick,” one character laments. Granik and her co-writer Rosellini succeed at constructing an elaborate social profile of the area. It feels genuine and true, as depressing as it is. It’s a world populated with those who self-medicate to escape the problems of the world. Ree’s own mother lost her sanity, and the pills aren’t helping. “She keeps taking ’em,” Ree explains, “but they ain’t helping none.” Still, she keeps on poppin’ them because it’s better than facing the world.

If he starts playing "duelling banjos", I am outta here...

At seventeen, it’s remarkable that Ree herself hasn’t come down with a “taste” for the local drug of choice, crystal meth. After her search leads her down some particularly dark avenues, she’s offered painkillers that her neighbour keeps on-hand. “She’s gonna want more,” the neighbour warns, “but start with two.” It’s easy to see the cycle in effect. Once you realise there’s no escape, I guess it makes sense to start medicating. It’s cold and depressing, but it’s also powerful stuff.

The authorities are, as ever, entirely powerless to help. The local law enforcement is either corrupt or incompetent (or both). When Ree is lured to an army recruitment centre (which the film makes seem especially cynical – what with dangling “free money” at poor people), she explains her situation to the recruitment officer. The best he can do is offer some earnestly recycled words of advice, “Buckle up and stay home.” Pretty much just a pat on the back and a casual acknowledgement of how difficult it must be, from someone who has no idea.

Complicated family tree...

It sounds harsh, and it is. It’s a very cold film. There’s no hint of glamour, which is probably the best approach – but it also undermines various scenes. You know that certain actions won’t happen within the confines of this particular low-key narrative, so it renders various stand-offs rather… ineffective. You know that the tension is never going to reach boiling point (because it’s not that kind of film), and yet we’re teased with a stand-off and a whole variety of posturing.

I think these moments betray the film’s key weakness. It’s slow. It’s very slow. Very little actually happens, because it’s a movie about how little ever changes and how ineffective our heroine is in a world like this. It doesn’t lend itself to especially dynamic or exciting storytelling. As interesting as the sketches of each character may be, nothing ever really happens. Okay, that’s not fair – the central story arc is resolved, but with an underlying message that it wasn’t because of any particular thing our lead character did (at least not directly) – but nothing major ever happens.

I get that it’s kinda the point. The movie is about how these cycles repeat themselves and how family feuds continue perpetually until… well, until someone breaks and does something really stupid. However, the film never really has a sense that anything is happening or that our character has learnt anything as she journeys through the adventure. She starts out knowing pretty much what she knows at the end – there’s no insight or revelation, or growth. She did some stuff that she knew she shouldn’t, but kinda had to in order to protect her family, and in the end it turns out that she shouldn’t have, but still kinda had to.

"Police, don't evict us!"

Jennifer Lawrence is great in the lead role. Being honest, it isn’t the most amazing performance I’ve seen from a teenage actress, but it is very good. I predict big things for her. It’s also good to have John Hawkes back. I had Hawkes pegged as the next big thing about five years ago, but he just vanished (doing Lost and Deadwood, so not really “vanished”). It’s good to see him again.

Winter’s Bone is a decent film, but not a superb one. It does wonderful work with mood and atmosphere, but there’s really only so far these elements can carry a film. I think it’s safe to say that this is the year’s weakest Best Picture nominee, which still – I suppose – represents a vast improvement over years past. It’s not a movie for those who like plot and development, but it captures a lot of the isolation and desolation of the community it documents.

6 Responses

  1. I absolutely loved that intentional eschewing of anything resembling glamor or glitz; every effort is made to draw something really bleak and unforgiving out of Granik’s world, totally appropriate considering the setting and the circumstances of the characters. It’s a pretty great neo-noir, replete with the kind of figures and conflicts that identify the old-school entries in the genre that made it what it is.

    Agreed on Hawkes. Loved seeing him here, especially since he’s taking on the role of badass, something he’s not really known for playing. But he does it with unnerving aplomb. His nomination basically guarantees that he’ll have work for the rest of his career if he wants it. I was more taken with Lawrence then you were, but it’s definitely a worthy performance and one that will only cause her star to rise.

    Great review, Darren!

    • Thanks. I think seeing True Grit set the bar a little high on teenage actresses. I know Hailee Steinfeld had stronger material to work with, but a Coens Brother script is daunting for even an adult performer – to see a teen who can do it just knocked my socks off. I accept I’m probably in the minority on Winter’s Bone, but it was beautifully made. I just wish something actually happened.

  2. Winter’s Bone isn’t a movie about a character learning or growing, and it certainly isn’t a movie where the lead character goes on an adventure. It is a survivalist movie. The lead character is put in a situation where she has no choice but to stir up a deadly hornet’s nest and the best that she can hope to for is to survive.

    A lead character learning or growing isn’t esssential for a really good movie. I don’t think Leonard Shelby learns anything or grows in Memento. He is trapped in a situation where he can’t. Does that make Memento a lesser movie? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it makes it better.

    I think Winter’s Bone is the equal of the Coens Bros. True Grit. There is more levity and charm in True Grit but in every other respect, Winter’s Bone matches it.

    • That’s a fair paint, but Shelby learns about the kind of man he is at the end of Memento – which represents a character growth of sorts. He grows back into the same shape each time, but he grows – and then he’s cut down, and he grows again. It’s a perverse journey, something Nolan emphasises by playing with the narrative format, but it’s still a journey.

      But, I digress. You are correct. I think somebody once made the argument that tragedy is what you get when a character can’t or won’t change. However, even a character standing stationary relative to a changing world creates the impression of movement – something I found lacking here.

      At the end, it’s the same world, same character, it was when we joined it. It’s a “shoot the shaggy dog” sort of story – which, I concede, is the point of it all, and which can work really well. Here, however, it doesn’t because it sets itself up as a story with a character embarking on a journey, but never really goes anywhere.

  3. Darren I’m from Philadelphia and now live in the adjacent county to winter’s Bone as much of it was shot in Christian County Missouri. The rest was shot in the county the Branson song circus is in. Right close by and it is accurate.Trust me.

    I have gone to yard sales and gotten the feeling that you could disappear and be fed to the pigs, your car taken and no one would ever know or find out. Yet these are the people who will stop pretty fast when your car is disabled on highway 60 going into Springfield.

    Everyone is rated because incest is best around here. Even the Amish have been caught recently. It looks like way out wilderness but it isn’t. A few miles back up the dirt road and you may be almost at a Wal-Mart.

    Young people have great difficulty getting out of the Ozarks. I have often wondered how terribly different my life might be had I been born here. I am still amazed how many young women go to beauty school or take up nursing to get out.

    Ree is a probably a girl who didn’t go to school much. That means she was “homeschooled” which means she learned just about nothing. The only thing she has going for herself is just that red-necked hillbilly stasis. It’s terribly sad and yet when the US goes down, it is these people who will survive. I think of Bettleheim in the camps saying the intellectuals died first. Or Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, These kinds of people survived.

    As a city girl I shuddered with culture shock for years. But I have learned to look at someone and know I could get over them if I wanted. It’s just something you develop after awhile. These are hard people. In the Civil War Missouri fought it as a guerrilla war not disciplined armed troops.

    There is something that does command respect. They were onto Obama on Day 2 of his taking office. Some kind of inner bullshit detector about some things.

    Well,I could goon. Please keep reviewing your non-reviews. I do love them.

    • Wow. I did not know things were really that bad, Abbey. I’d assumed that at least some of it was exaggeration or dramatic license. That’s pretty damn depressing. “Hard people” indeed.

      Thanks for the kind words.

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