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Searching for truth in the Ozarks
by Molly Templeton
WINTER’S BONE: Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Cinematography, Michael McDonough. Editing, Affonso Gonçalves. Music, Dickon Hinchliffe. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt and Lauren Sweetser. Roadside Attractions, 2010. R. 100 minutes.
The tired fields and thin trees that fill the landscapes in Winter’s Bone have the uneasy familiarity of something that looks almost like a thing you know — but is just different enough to rattle.
The poverty that permeates the family of 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) looks a lot like the poverty in many small towns: the tractor and dead cars sunk in the grass, the kids trying to skateboard on any flat surface, the tired appliances and worn clothes, the empty plastic bottles picked out of the yard and set up for target practice. But for any outsider to think they know the Dolly clan would be a mistake. Everyone near Ree’s home seems to be related by blood or marriage; the connections run deep, strong and strange.
Director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) builds her story slowly, piecing together Ree’s life out of chores and necessities. Her mother doesn’t speak and barely moves. Ree looks after her two younger siblings, a task that involves the ordinary — making breakfast, testing them on spelling words — and the quietly agonizing, as when she walks the family horse over to the neighbor’s and walks home alone. “Hay gets expensive, don’t it?” Sonya (Shelley Waggener) asks.
Everything gets expensive. And everything gets complicated when the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up. Ree’s dad, accused of cooking meth, has skipped bail and put the house up as his bond. Either he turns up for his court date, or Ree’s family loses the house. Ree doesn’t hesitate: She’ll find him.
Winter’s Bone is a coming of age story in quest form: To find her father, Ree visits his associates, his former girlfriend and, mostly, her own distant kin, all of whom exist within a strict and unspoken code of conduct. You can ask a question, but you might not get an answer. You’d best not ask twice, as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), makes immediately clear. A reedy, short-fused man whose loyalties are rarely obvious, Teardrop both helps and hinders Ree; later, the same treatment comes from Merab (Dale Dickey), whose worn face shows steel and sympathy in an ever-shifting balance.
Cruelties large and small pile up as Ree searches for her father, negotiating terrain that only gets more treacherous. As she searches, Granik explores the complicated relationships between family and, more particularly, between women. Her father’s disappearance is of little concern to Ree; her mother’s inability or unwillingness to help is what hurts. Ree’s best friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser) is, like the rest of the women in the film, partly limited by her relationship with her husband and partly in control of it.
Winter’s Bone resonates like an old story — Biblical, Greek, Shakespearean, Western — coated in dust and settled into a corner of the country that seems forgotten by the rest of the world. There, the only thing worse than crossing the law is crossing your own people. It’s not just the presence of Hawkes and Dillahunt that recalls the brilliant Deadwood; it’s the ongoing battle for power and certainty among people who have little of the former and a great need of the latter, and the way the men and women next door might drag you out of the house one day and keep a sharp eye on an arriving lawman the next. It’s also the performance of Lawrence, who as Ree is stoic, sharp and still shockable. The more she pushes, the more her world pushes back, and while Ree puts on a good face, fear hovers in her eyes. She’s not the right person for the task she’s been given, but she’s the only person to do it, whether or not that breaks the rules or pisses people off. So she does it, step by stubborn step, and as she takes those steps, Granik weaves the realities of her life into the seams of her story. Winter’s Bone is less a film about a place and a way of life than a quietly heroic tale about one young woman beginning to understand where she comes from and how that shapes her. It’s Ree Dolly, not the worn houses, the meth labs or the violence, that sticks around when Winter’s Bone is over.
Winter’s Bone opens Friday, Aug. 6, at the Bijou.