As I was leaving the theater after watching “Winter’s Bone,” I overheard one of my fellow movie patrons turn to his wife and, sniggering, leer “boy, those tough country women, eh?”
I felt like smacking him. The word country was intoned in that holier-than-thou manner which contains so many other words implicit in its condescension. Backwards. Unenlightened. Stupid.
As if any of those words applied to a single character in Debra Granik’s searing, bleak little drama. Or, indeed, anyone that I’ve met in my summers in Harlan County, Kentucky, an extremely impoverished area of Appalachia that bears more than a few similarities with the Ozark region that forms the setting of “Winter’s Bone.” If you want to stereotype these people, there’s a way to do it, but steer clear of quips about intelligence. Don’t for a second entertain illusions of superiority just because you know who Toussaint L’Ouverture was and maybe they don’t.
You want words to describe that “tough country woman,” Ree Dolly? Try self-reliant. Try fierce. Try cautious, of the law, of outsiders, of her own relations. Try (most importantly) proud. There is absolutely nothing amusing about Ree’s stubbornness. This is about survival, and we frequenters of small, expensive independent cinemas will never fully be able to understand that.
Ree is seventeen years old. Her father Jessup is known around the area for cooking crystal meth, though he’s been MIA since posting bail on a recent arrest. Ree takes care of her two younger siblings and her mother, who seems to have been mentally broken by the taxations of life with Jessup. The sheriff comes to her home, informing her that Jessup has skipped on his bail, and she and the family will lose their house if he doesn’t show up in court within a week. “I’ll find him,” Ree tells the sheriff, and there can be no doubt from that moment on that she will, one way or another. She shares the grit and stubbornness of any one of the other damaged, bitter survivors she meets along the way; but, she is less hollow than they are. She has not yet surrendered to the life that has taken in so many of her neighbors.
“Winter’s Bone” is partly a showcase for Jennifer Lawrence, 19 years old and already creating one the most memorable movie heroines in years. But praise for the film (which won the Grand Jury and Screenwriting prizes at Sundance earlier this year) should hardly stop there. There’s a small host of outstanding character actors here, people you would normally recognize (at least as “that guy”) but disappear so thoroughly into their “Winter’s Bone” roles – I didn’t even recognize John Hawkes (“American Gangster,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know”, lots of TV) whose chilling, smoldering performance as Ree’s uncle Teardrop matches Lawrence’s scene for scene.
Cinematographer Michael McDonough’s work with the on-location shots is also fittingly stark, worthy of any great post-apocalyptic tale like “The Road” or “Children of Men.” The absolute bleakness of it all is positively relentless. Granik’s strong script leaves much unsaid, as it should; these people are all wary of each other, and talking too much is a sure way to find yourself in trouble. The narrative is severe but unhurried – Granik takes her time, languishing on the details of a landscape that will look completely alien to most city folk.
After a certain series of shots around the Dolly home, I found myself wondering: was there ever a time when this house did not look exactly the way it is? Ree’s siblings have toys lying around the house, a trampoline in the backyard. Her best friend at one point lends a hand by obtaining a pick-up truck. Was there ever a time when those toys were not worn out? When that trampoline looked solid and inviting? When that truck was rust-free and sparkling? There must have been, but it’s impossible to picture. This is a place that feels trapped in the moment; there is no past, no future. Only the strongest wills have the force to break free from this cage. Ree might have that will. Might. But for now, she just survives.
Mostly out of theaters. Might be able to catch it in some places still.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars