An Almost Perfect Film
It is quite rare that a film haunts me for several days after seeing it, making me imagine again its mesmerizing scenery and characters and wonder at its elegant, if fierce, intensity, yet gentle and decent humanity. Watching Winter’s Bone (which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundown film festival) put me in mind of such classic films of poverty, grit, survival, yet challenging humanity, as John Ford’s "The Grapes of Wrath" and Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist post-war film "Rome, Open City." The faces of the characters in the film evoke for me the poignant photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans of depression era women.
Critics (you can read a range of reviews of the film, awarding it superlatives, on the web site, Rotten Tomatoes) have spoken of "Winter’s Bone" as the best film so far this year and touted Jennifer Lawrence, the main nineteen year-old star who plays Ree Dolly, as a likely Oscar nominee for best actress. The opinion of Matt Pais who writes film criticism for Metromax captured my sentiments closely: “This quiet mystery has kindness and humanity sprinkled across hopelessness so constant you forget to breathe… It would be unbearingly depressing, if it were not so unflinchingly great.”
Directed by Debra Granik, with a screen play by Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, "Winter’s Bone" is, on one level, a mystery set in the insular world of the Ozarks, where the fabled moonshiners have graduated to the production of crystal meth. I am told that in Los Angeles people seeking crystal meth from drug dealers slyly simply mention the postal code for the area of the Ozarks as a secret name for the drug.
Ree Dolly’s father has run afoul both of the law and of larger drug kingpins in the area and disappears. Because he had put his rude mountain cabin and forest land up as his bail security, Ree is told that if he does not show up for trial, she and her two younger siblings and her catatonic depressed mother will be put out of their rustic home. Like some latter-day Antigone, Ree sets out to find out about her father’s mysterious disappearance (and, perhaps, likely death). She must confront, with grit, a perilous web of secrets and lies, a tangle of distrust of outsiders and anyone who asks too pointed questions.
"Winter’s Bone" is, simultaneously, a character study. Ree seems too lovely, too unflinching in her courage—in short, too loving and good—almost to believe in this world where life is cold and kin are cruel. She effectively raises her two much younger siblings, teaching them to spell, to shoot a squirrel and then dice it down for eating. It becomes clear, as she moves across hillocks and hollers to neighboring cabins, that she meets with a stone-walling about her father’s disappearance. At times, she almost seems like the squirrel who might be hunted down. Yet, in this hard and stony land, people know how to survive. Men are tough and their women are, too (they need to be to survive the macho patriarchal society). Neither the local sheriff nor relatives are forthcoming about what they seemingly know.
Ree is dutifully warned to get off the scent but will not relent. But in this harsh environment where underneath distrust there still lurks love and kinship, survival also is deeply rooted. Ree’s very survival as a daughter and care- giver for her siblings is at stake. She turns to her hard-scrabble and dangerous uncle, Teardrop, for some help. At first, he leads her astray and threatens her for her pursuit of truth. Ree tells him: “I was always deathly afraid of you”. He responds: “You were always smart”. Eventually, he, too, shows some humanity and help. John Hawkes as her unstable, meth addicted uncle gives a memorable performance, as does Dale Dickey as Merab, the harridan wife of the sleazy drug lord who beats Ree mercilessly to warn her off but eventually also shows a kind of bizarre kindness in leading Ree to her father’s corpse. Both performances might be worthy contenders for supporting acting Oscars.
Finally, "Winter’s Bone" is almost like a documentary. Its unvarnished, quasi-documentary, realism takes us into a landscape of frost, ranged forests and plots of land filled with abandoned rusted cars. It shows us trailers and cabins with broken utensils on their porches but satellite antennas on their roofs. Its brilliant visualization of place stuns. Granik and Rossellini spent a fairly long period studying the Missouri Ozark region ( and use some local figures as actors). Remarkably, they resist easy caricatures of mere "hill-billies." As Roger Ebert said in his review of the film: “Her film does not live above these people but among them." Distrustful yet ordinary people, living a code of honor and shame, still rise to the occasion with some compassion (a neighbor brings food to the empty larder of Ree’s house; a teen age mother and wife stealthily helps Ree by providing transportation to where she needs to go to track clues of her father’s disappearance).
Two things stood out for me from the film. First, how many pockets of poverty and abandonment (parts of the Ozarks and Appalachia among them) lie strewn across our American landscape, like the trash-filled yards we see in the film. Most of all, in a movie filled with hate-filled faces and lives chewed away by the scourge of poverty and methamphetamine ( its production and use), in Ree Dolly we see that goodness can still be found, even in the midst of evil. Yet, at one point, she is sorely tempted simply to flee her siblings and mother, her poverty, her duty to truth, by joining the army.
I had to ask how this young woman—who surely had to almost raise herself—found her grit and grace to live a life of loving care and integrity. Theologians often talk about the mystery of evil or chalk evil up to degrading societal influences. They talk too little about the mystery of goodness, even in our ghettoes and poverty hollers. In the end, despite its chilling landscape, for me "Winter’s Bone" is ultimately a film about spirit and hope. As Roger Ebert also notes in his review: “Ree’s hope and courage lock us in! How did she get to be the way she is ? Although life can be a great discouragement in every bad situation, there is usually a few good people. “In the end, we need to rely on those few good people to serve as our moral compass.
"Winter’s Bone" is an almost perfect film. It is a classic triumph of sorts as Southern Gothic noir and regional realism.
John Coleman, S.J.