WINTER'S BONE Directed by Debra Granik
When I'm settling in to watch a movie, nothing lowers my expectations like an establishing shot of a city skyline. Some familiar spire might tell me the story takes place in New York or Chicago or San Francisco, but what the shot often announces, like a thoughtlessly chosen postcard from a vacationing friend, is the filmmaker's lack of actual engagement with the setting. And in fact the city often turns out to be more of a backdrop than a setting. A well-rendered setting communicates all sorts of things besides location: class, culture, even theme. But the ubiquity of mass media and the rootlessness of modern life have largely neutralized the city in dramatic terms—nine times out of ten, you could move the action from one city to another without changing anything else.
Believe it or not, there are still places in the U.S. that are isolated, inbred, and insular, where poverty and tradition keep people rooted to the land and bound to each other. Debra Granik's gripping drama Winter's Bone takes place in the dirt-poor Ozarks, far from the electronic squall of mass culture, and the cloistered setting is so central to the characters' problems that it almost seems like a character in itself. Adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone is the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl forced to become the head of her little family; her catatonic mother is incapable of caring for the two younger children, and her father, who cooks crystal meth for a local dealer, has disappeared a week before a scheduled court date. Informed by the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) that her father used the family homestead as collateral for his bond, Ree sets out to find him before she and her kin are turned out into the fields.
Granik made her feature debut with the similarly titled Down to the Bone (2004), which included a breakout performance by Vera Farmiga as a young mother struggling to kick a ten-year cocaine addiction. That movie is set in upstate New York, and it too benefits from a vivid sense of place. Its very first shot—a supermarket parking lot vacant except for strolling gulls and an overturned shopping cart—tells you everything you need to know about the characters' dull, lower-middle-class lives. The drab small-town setting helps explain this particular woman's hunger for drugs—stuck in a place like this, who wouldn't want to get high? But it also turns out to be central to her dilemma. Her husband and their friends are still using, and eventually she learns the hard way that she can't stay clean without changing her environment.
Addiction is part of the scenery in Winter's Bone as well: almost everyone in the little mountain community is smoking or snorting or swilling something. When Ree confesses to a neighbor that her father was cooking crank, the woman replies, "They all do now. You don't even need to say it out loud." Drugs are so pervasive that offering them has become a common backwoods courtesy, like bringing food to a sick neighbor. After Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), balks at helping her, his wife presses a joint into her palm and apologetically tells her, "Here's a doobie for your walk." Little Arthur, her father's pal, turns her away completely. "You want a line?" he asks. "You want to blow some smoke?" She doesn't. "Then I guess we got nothing for you! Go on!"
The meth use is particularly noteworthy because it's one of the few things dating Winter's Bone to the modern day; substitute illegal moonshine and this story could as easily be set in the 1920s. Just as movies set in the big city can seem placeless, movies set in the remotest parts of the country can seem timeless. Here the 21st century is represented mainly by its garbage, whether it's behavioral (the meth), cultural (the Korn-style metal one character listens to on his outdated boom box), or material (a junked satellite dish decorating one yard, along with the usual cars, scrap metal, and other detritus). By contrast, the community's values are as unchanged as the mountain terrain: people are contemptuous of the law, rigid in their ideas about men and women, and haunted by an old-fashioned feeling of responsibility toward one another.
That sense of a criminal society, functioning outside the reaches of authority, may be what prompted one commenter on the Internet Movie Database to describe Winter's Bone as film noir, though it lacks almost any stylistic connection to those shadowy tales of urban crime. Thump Milton, the meth supplier who employs Ree's father, is the most feared man in the region, and if her father hasn't disappeared to avoid testifying against him, he's probably dead. The sheriff commands much less respect: when he pulls over Ree and Teardrop in the middle of the night, Teardrop stops him in his tracks by showing the barrel of a rifle out the driver's side window. "Is this gonna be our time?" he asks the sheriff, who blanches and allows them to drive off. "He never backed me down," the sheriff tells Ree later, in the safety of his office. "Don't you let me hear that's a story gettin' around."
In these parts men still rule, and women who don't know their place can count on getting hurt. "I said 'shut up' once already with my mouth," Teardrop tells his wife when Ree first comes to them for help. Ree won't let up, and finally Teardrop pounces on and chokes her; once she's relented he strokes her hair, his tenderness as sincere as the violence that preceded it. Everyone seems flummoxed that the issue is being forced by a teenage girl. When Ree boldly shows up at Thump Milton's house to request an audience, his grizzled wife asks, "Ain't you got no men to do this?" The movie's most jaw-dropping culture-shock moment comes when Thump decides to teach Ree a lesson: for him and his men to gang up on a girl wouldn't be chivalrous, so instead his wife and her sisters take Ree into the barn and kick the shit out of her.
But even these animals feel some responsibility for their neighbors, and when they learn the actual severity of Ree's situation, a grim accommodation is worked out. That communitarian ethic runs all through the movie: in one of the earliest scenes, a neighbor agrees to care for the family's horse, knowing they can't afford to feed it, and later she shows up with some deer meat for their dinner. Teardrop, for all his initial resistance, protects Ree because she's family. Ree articulates the sentiment beautifully when her young siblings ask if she's going to leave them: "I'd be lost without the weight of you two on my back." Winter's Bone often seems to be unfolding in a world apart, with its own moral logic and codes of conduct. It might feel like prison if it weren't so obviously home.