Directed by Debra Granik
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garrett Dillahunt, Lauren Sweester, Dale Dickey, Shelly Waggener
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini based on the book by Daniel Woodrell
In all honesty, as good a movie as Winter’s Bone, I don’t think I could ever watch it again. It is based on a work of crime fiction, but it feels as real as anything I have ever seen, thereby defeating the reason for watching it in the first place. I have to admit, my desire for watching films is not to slog through life as horrible as it can be, realistically drawn to a pathetic perfection. I am more apt to watch Transformers than, say, Boyz In The Hood, although anyone could tell one of those movies deserves to be remembered for posterity.
Starting off with a pretty 17-year-old girl, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), taking care of two young children who are revealed to be her siblings in a rural, dirt poor area of the Ozarks. Soon enough, it is revealed that she is the person keeping the family together. Doing the chores, searching for food, taking the family horse to the neighbors to take care of. They are barely getting by. Still she maintains a certain dignity remarkable for her age and position. Seeing the neighbors have landed some game and are cleaning it next door, her little brother wonders if they can go over and ask the neighbors for some. This elicits a response both remarkable and shocking in any age:
“Never ask for what ought to be offered.”
Enter the local town law officer, Sheriff Baskin (a gentle Dillahunt), asking about her catatonic mother and inquiring to the whereabouts of her father. Of course Ree has no idea where her father is, and she tells Baskin so. The family could lose their home if her father does not show up for his court hearing. It is revealed that her father is a local meth cooker, busted more than once, and he has not been seen for months. Ree tells Sheriff Baskin that she will find her father. The Sheriff, whose face is kind, appears somewhat incredulous. He knows all too well that people don’t talk much in this area.
Ree goes to her closer relatives first, and then expands her search. Everyone is reluctant to step in, going so far as to tell her
she should keep out of it herself. Her Uncle, and father’s fellow drug running father, Teardrop, goes so far as to tell her he is reasonably sure that her father has been murdered and that she should leave well enough alone. Played by the extremely talented and soulful John Hawkes, of Deadwood fame, he is gaunt and haggard, showing the effects of his hard life. Teardrop is a haunted and deeply troubled, ultimately teetering on the edge of falling into the abyss himself. Everything that can be said about Christian Bale in The Fighter can be attributed to Hawkes portrayal here. The only reason he is not going to win is that he has not done a Batman film yet.
Eventually we see Ree, who is desperate to save her family from the mire that is slowly enveloping around it, will poke the bear just once too often. That she does not just take the easy way out, move the family in with her sister or Uncle Teardrop is indicative to how long she has fought just to keep her head above water. She is determined, but ignorant. This is further shown by her attempt to join the military. She is looking not only for the signing bonus to pay off her father’s debts, but to see if she can just up and take her siblings with her, like children in her charge. The work is incidental. She needs to get them, needs to get herself, out. Asked if she would ever leave by her younger siblings, she says, quite effortlessly:
“I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going anywhere.”
Uncle Teardrop is there to rescue her from certain things, but with all of his wisdom too, he is, like Ree’s mother, in a state of catatonia. He knows only enough to keep him in the trouble he’s in, not how to get out. All he can offer his desperate niece is money, drugs and a ride back home, to the home she is about to lose.
As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence looks the part of a young, ragged beauty. That her teeth are healthy could be considered a minor miracle, were it not for the fact that she avoids the drugs that make all of her relatives and their associates dentures look so ill. She knows enough to keep her wits about her. Her portrayal will not soon forgotten. One thing peculiar about it is her absolute ignorance of her femininity. Covered in the heavy, loose clothing of the poor fighting off the cold, she never bats her eyes, even once. She has no time for it.
That a pocket like this can exist in the U.S. is not a real surprise. Parts of my hometown in rural South King County have been ravaged by meth-amphetamines for years. There seems to be a certain acceptance that there will be casualties along the way as Darwin helps to sort out those who will thrive and those who fall by the wayside with this miserable plague. Cheap to produce, the horrid affects of this rancid drug disease seems all but impossible to root out, especially if you want to lead a normal life, just out of reach of those who are swallowed by it.
My main issues with the film are two:
- It is impossible to watch something so dire more than once. Life ain’t easy for a lot of us this day and age. Although this film is the highest form of art, one can’t help but be drawn away when hope is such a non-existent thing here. We spend much of our lives turning away from people like this.
- The mystery of the film, really is no mystery at all. Instead, we see Ree bumped around like a determined pinball, until someone finally takes pity on her and lets her experience an end that seemed inevitable.
If you have the constitutional fortitude, this movie would be a good watch. Really, it is worth a look for the efforts of Hawkes and Lawrence. Your heart, however, will experience a slow burn. It’s the kind of pain that can seem comfortable after a while. Be warned not to let it happen. “There is a time for everything,” according to Ecclesiastes, “and a season for every activity under the heavens“, even winter, cold to the bone, won’t last forever. Watch this movie more than once and it might seem like it can.
(***1/2 out of *****)