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Film Review: Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010; Directed by Debra Granik)

A gritty and realistic portrait of all-American rural poverty, Debra Granik’s taut, bleak, and surprisingly panoramic Winter’s Bone is also a silver-lined tale of brave feminine resistance to the fundamental corruption of the traditional patriarchal structure.

Not much grain here, and that which is isn't amber or wavy...

Following the quest of a steely-eyed teenage girl in the poorest reaches of the Ozarks to ferret out what became of her ne’er-do-well father before a bail bondsman deprives her family of their home, the film is both patiently composed and, notably for such a serious-minded American indie film, mostly blissfully free of pretentious stylization (one striking sequence excepted, as we’ll see). Granik’s camera lingers on cluttered, rusting tableaus of life in the Ozarks (the production design is subtly, amazingly detailed, if it is design at all) but never detaches them from the likewise rusting humans that inhabit them. This is an artful film that valiantly resists artifice.

Considering the plot is derived from basic enough boilerplate detective noir, Winter’s Bone should not feel quite as veritable or “authentic” (even encased in parentheses, I shudder at the term) as it does. But this is a film that refuses to look away from a harsh corner of America where the soaring profits of capitalism are not even valid enough to be an afterthought. Although the mystery at the film’s heart revolves around the region’s endemic methamphetamine trade, its consequences are somewhat absent, and there is none of the enlightened, ambiguous exploration of the nature of the drug trade that was provided by The Wire. Meth is taken as a given in this community, a cruel but unavoidable necessity that hangs over everything but is barely discussed in anything more than a hushed whisper. The illustrations of the grinding poverty that characterizes the life of the people of the Ozarks is more involved but similarly without judgement or liberal moralizing. Reasons are not provided, escape is not contemplated, and survival is the only operative concern.

The centre of the film, the focus of its sprawling detail, is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, the laconic, determined 17-year-old girl hardened by circumstances into an unwilling sleuth. Lawrence is a quiet revelation, obscuring her feelings behind frumpy rural clothing and her rounded facial features until they burst helplessly forth. The force of her will is formidable but not unreal; there are limits to what a young woman can accomplish in this male-dominated culture, as we see increasingly in the last half of the film. When she’s forced, at threat to her life, to explain the reasons for her father-seeking quest, the answer surprises even herself, and only vaguely stirs the sympathy of her captors. The one brief aforementioned retreat into artiness – a dream that comes to Ree after suffering a beating, a monochromatic, Bergmanesque affair featuring squirrels, trees, and the sound of revving chainsaws – is therefore not only forgivable but even appropriate because it affords a glimpse into Ree’s psyche, which is otherwise carefully obscured at least partly for her own protection as a woman.

The film’s measured and multifaceted portrayal of the inner workings of the patriarchy of a conservative society such as the one Ree finds herself in is its greatest strength. We meet archetypes of feminine marginalization like Ree’s near-catatonic mother and her best friend, a pretty young mother subject to the whims of an equally young and lunkheaded man. We also meet more interesting figures like the Milton sisters, who act as gatekeepers and occasional enforcers to the community’s defacto feudal lord, Thump Milton. When they eventually accompany Ree onto a darkened lake for the spooky final leg of her search, their stiff upper lips in the face of a gruesome but necessary task contrasts with Ree’s shock and horror. In these moments, Merab (Dale Dickey) seems like the true authority of this world.

But the patriarchy also diminishes the men, who wander the peripheries as almost mute, haunted spirits. Although Ree’s uncle Teardrop (the excellent John Hawkes of Deadwood semi-fame) eventually takes an active role in her investigation, his menace is interwoven with his waifishness until they are one and inseparable. Although Thump appears as a formidable figure, hefty and bearded with a cowboy hat and a vest bestrewn with 4H medals and other ag club pins like the breastplate of a Trojan king, he’s largely mute, overshadowed by Merab and her sisters and melding with other males who cloak their disenfranchised insecurity in aggressive poses. The awkward, likely-crooked local sheriff (the ever-sad-and-diminished Garret Dillahunt) can never seem to exercise the authority invested by his badge, either. The overwhelming atmosphere of deprivation wreaks havoc on the overt display of masculine power.

If the census man comes by, just aim like this...

The film’s dominant ghost, however, must be Jessup Dolly himself, the never-glimpsed father that Ree is after. She searches for him not to rekindle a relationship or to learn to appreciate his gruff paternal charm or any other such cinematic cliche. Even when Ree discovers that he chafed at the bit of his misdeeds and that the moral nagging he felt likely got him killed, there is no registering of a change of heart. He is a means to an end, a soul that must be shuffled from this mortal coil for good and all so that those he left behind can continue on. He is, indeed, reduced to an object by the end, a merely corporeal mass without agency or humanity. He fulfills a purpose, ultimately, but that is all. He is not himself, or anyone else. His milieu has swallowed him whole and he cannot be fathomed.

A riveting, unswerving film experience, Winter’s Bone clings to some human feeling in the final analysis. But its rare power comes from its wide-eyed examination of the costs of endemic, societal poverty, an irrevocable force that reduces those under its influence to something less than full participants not only in American democracy but also in full personhood. The closing strains of tragic Ozark mountain music suggest that beauty lurks even in the poorest of places, and Debra Granik’s film is unflinching in its descent into just one such place.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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