There’s an informative interview with director Debra Granik here, where she talks about the mythological underpinnings of her impressive film Winter’s Bone (2010); the idea of a quest, where the character makes a journey to secure something and bring it back as an emblem, or proof of the journey. She also talks about the reactions of Europeans, specifically Germans, to the film, and their comfort with the storytelling method of the film, portraying a girl who enters the woods to face unknown evils that may steal away her innocence. They related to the folk-tale, fairy-tale, aspects that align so closely with their own storytelling traditions.
The world that’s depicted by Granik truly holds no surface appeal for us. It’s an historically entrenched criminal culture that has developed very hard, very cruel, boundaries. Think of drug cartels in Columbia, white slavery rings in Asia and Eastern Europe, the guns and weapons markets in Africa and the Middle East, the opium trade in Afghanistan, the family syndicates of southern Italy and Sicily; enormous amounts of money change hands, and yet there’s no evidence of those riches here at the lowest rungs of enterprise, in the deep Missouri Ozarks, where the entire populace has been co-opted, for generations, first by moonshining and gun-running, then by the marijuana trade, and now by the methamphetamine industry. Under circumstances of profound poverty, cooking meth is one of the few options the community has left to earn any kind of a living. Yet, there’s a kind of anthropological fascination for us in witnessing how traditions like tight-knit families and male-female hierarchies are upheld, or distorted, in the face of these realities.
Ree Dolly is a seventeen-year-old girl/woman who takes care of her two young siblings and her mentally addled, semi-comatose mother. Her father, who, like most men of the Ozarks, cooks methamphetamine, had been arrested, and put up the family home and property for bond. Now, of course, he’s disappeared, and Ree will lose everything, and any chance of keeping her family together, if she doesn’t find her father and persuade him to appear in court.
So Ree must go from house-to-house, farm-to-farm, relative-to-relative, drug-supplier-to-drug-supplier, to find the father who not only has no intention of being found, but may not even be alive any more.
It seems nearly impossible that this morally fearless, admirably responsible woman could have surfaced in the midst of this junkyard-dog culture, yet here she is. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance here is rock solid, perfectly balancing her devotion to the gravity of her ‘quest’ with the youthful uncertainty of how badly things may go for her, what violent risks she’s assuming, if she takes the next step. She’s in practically every frame of this film, and she delivers powerfully.
Lawrence’s Oscar buzz is understandable, and well deserved. But I would certainly like to see more props for the astonishing John Hawkes as well. From ‘Deadwood’ to ‘You And Me And Everyone We Know’ to this, Hawkes has shown enviable range, and his portrayal of Ree’s surly, taciturn uncle Teardrop is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
‘Winter’s Bone’ is a stirring and involving film about truths and traditions that are worth defending in the face of debilitating, destructive cultural forces. It was only around for a month or so, buried in the deluge of the big summer releases. It’s available on Netflix, and, hopefully, the Oscar action it’s sure to receive will lead to re-screenings next month. Highly recommended.