Winter's Bone

24 September 2010

Following previous success and recognition at Sundance – for her short film Snake Feed in 1998 and for her debut feature Down to the Bone in 2004 – film-maker Debra Granik scored at this year's festival the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, with co-writer Anne Rossellini, for her latest feature, Winter's Bone. The film received limited distribution in the USA in June and its UK theatrical release began earlier this month to a very positive response.

Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, the film is based and filmed in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in her attempts to bring up her two younger siblings, tend to her mentally ill mother and, crucially, find her drug-addicted father, Jessop; the latter is a week away from breaking bail and has put up the family home as bond. Set against the backdrop of a bleak landscape and driven by a vivid sense of community, Winter's Bone is a remarkable portrait of an underclass often neglected and misrepresented in film culture.

From its outset, the film has a patience and confidence quite rare in contemporary American cinema. Integrating professional actors with locals, it has an air of seeming authenticity carried through with an artistic seriousness. Working, as on her previous films, with cinematographer Michael McDonough, Granik directs with a quietly absorbing, understated visual style; there is a fine balance between invisible storytelling and more picturesque moments. The authors of the film are apparently aware that the finest character studies are those in which people emerge as natural products of their environment: here, even if at times the local dialect is difficult to discern, the research and sensitivity to the local milieu is evident throughout.

Granik's work recalls Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008): like that film (and Courtney Hunt's Frozen River of the same year), here we have a strong, female protagonist whose current day-to-day situation is one of essential survival due to circumstances beyond her control. Less feminist response to the current economic climate than careful examination of the kinds of objective factors that lead to familial dysfunction, social alienation, economic deprivation and the hopelessness, despair and disillusionment that come with these, the film offers a devastating view of life and a strong investment in its human elements.

Forced into action by the prospect of her family being thrown out of their own home, Ree begins to question those she thinks might be able to help track down her father, Jessop, an expert crystal meth manufacturer. Met with suspicion and hostility and fed with anything but a straight answer, Ree goes from one local resident to the next, all of whom are in some way connected to the drugs culture. “Talking just creates witnesses,” one character says at one point; at another later in the film, Sheriff Baskin (Garrett Dillahunt) warns Ree not to spread hearsay (i.e., the truth!) about his own ineptitude as the local law figure.

Clearly, this is a culture in which codes of silence are adhered to, in which social reputations are built on silence as much as rumour. Indeed, just as Ree herself comes under suspicion for just talking to “the law” and anybody else intruding on the community, the absence of her own father increasingly becomes a kind of warning against her: as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that the reason neither the police nor herself can get in touch with Jessop is directly related to this rigid hostility to anything that might put in jeopardy the separateness between the town's inhabitants, governed by their own laws of conduct, and the town's legal authorities proper. 

If the dramatic charge of the film is grim, Granik never milks or exploits her protagonist's situation. Helpless as she may ultimately be, Ree is also a young woman mature beyond her years and very much aware not only of her own dilemma, but also of her ability to actively engage with her environment, however dangerous it might be. The would-be hysteria of her situation is both balanced and magnified by a careful study of her domestic obligations: in quieter scenes, she tests her younger siblings on spelling and maths problems, and also how to fire a gun at squirrels and deer. Between these respective scenes, our perception of Ree's life might shift, but Granik handles both with the same observational air so as to stress the absolute normality of the situation. In an article in October's Sight & Sound, James Bell writes, “Granik was anxious to avoid accusations of elitist voyeurism – of taking 'a cheap holiday in other people's misery'”. 

This is telling. Through a confident control of her material, Granik has made a film that is deeply sensitive but never sentimental. None of the adults Ree meets are villains nor treated as such. Governed by largely silent men, it is the women in this town who pose the most immediate physical threat to Ree. But even when vicious local Merab (Dale Dickey) and her sisters beat the young girl up, there's scarcely a judgement made of them; something else, something much deeper, seems to be responsible for Ree's increasingly dangerous arc. 
What else, the film seems to suggest, are these people meant to do given the situation they are in? The people Ree is up against, unlike the cartoon savages encountered in the backwoods of Boorman's celebrated Deliverance (1972), are not driven by some kind of animal primitivism but by the more identifiable need to simply shut the prying girl up. The tension arising from this is very real indeed, and Granik heightens the drama and horror with a sympathetic edge that, while never condoning the violence carried out by these people, denies us the moral closure that might otherwise invite us to cheer when Ree's dangerous, coke-addicted uncle Teardrop takes an axe to one of their cars.

If that latter scene is directed with something resembling a commercialised stand-off, it also contains a lingering complexity: while Teardrop, played with some gravitas by John Hawkes, might have the badass qualities to survive in this harsh world alone, he also has a 17-year-old girl in the car with him, whose domestic responsibilities far outweigh his own. His recklessness and her vulnerability are both made vividly clear. 

In another scene, Ree visits a military recruitment office with the assumption that she can simply sign up and receive the fee promised in promotional literature. Ree's naivety is quickly exposed; her humility and honesty, not to mention the literalness of her intentions (to join the military literally to save her home) and her assumptions (that she can bring the siblings for whom she cares with her), are also complimented by a sympathetic recruiting officer opposite her. Played by a real-life sergeant who wrote his own additional dialogue, the officer seems almost as lost as Ree does when he explains that the girl's ambitions have been undone by a smallprint disclaimer she has evidently overlooked. It's an almost absurd scene, one that might go some way in capturing the socio-economic forces that determine a great number of military recruitments. It also enforces the urgency of the plot at hand.

The film maintains its moral neutrality even through the dark, horrifying final reel. Granik never seems to lose focus in her script or vision, and in Jennifer Lawrence she has brought to attention a capable actor who is both charming and tough. As a thriller, Winter's Bone is a quiet, accumulative work grounded in a deep sense of what for many at present constitutes the drama of everyday life. As such, it might be the best film of 2010 so far.