Every once in a rare while, a movie gets inside your head and heart. It rubs your emotions raw. The remarkable Winter’s Bone is just such a movie. The movie heroes who affect me most are not extroverted. They don’t strut and lead armies. They have no superpowers. They are ordinary people faced with a need. Ultimately, they rise to the occasion.
Ree Dolly is such a hero. A girl of 17, she acts as the homemaker for her younger brother and sister. Her mother sits useless all day, mentally absent. She tries to raise the kids and feed them, scraping along on welfare and the kindness of neighbors. Then one day, the sheriff comes to call. Her father Jessup has skipped bail. To meet his bond, he put up the house — perhaps the only asset he had. If he doesn’t turn himself in within a week, the family will be thrown out. Just like that.
“I’ll find him,” Ree says quietly and firmly. And that’s what she sets out to do. Her only option is to scour the backwoods, searching for Dad among the not-distant-enough relatives who (literally and figuratively) litter the county, and whose criminal operations likely have something to do with his disappearance. Director Debra Granik has adapted the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell into a brutally honest movie about secrets that fester among families in the Missouri backwoods.
Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence. She embodies a fierce, still center that is the source of her heroism. She makes no boasts, and depends on a dogged faith that people will do the right thing — even when no one we meet seems to deserve that faith. Everyone in the district knew that Jessup cooked meth. He is a modern moonshiner. Ree’s desperate mission takes her from shack to shack, questioning hostile and taciturn people. Despite this, she always returned home to care for her family. This is a community bound up in its own code of silence.
Police deputies approach these homes with fear. Here, the drug trade even touches those who want nothing to do with it. Additional, things turns mad and brutal for those who pursue it. The drug trade has twisted and turned a way of life that stretches back through generations. This land seems post-catastrophe. Although it has cars and electricity, running shoes and kitchens, cigarettes and televisions, these seem like relics of an earlier, prosperous time. As Ree goes from one house to another, seeking help in her urgent search, she is sent this way and that by wary- but-sympathetic women (whom mutter suggestions of her father’s whereabouts). There’s a vivid scene at a livestock auction as she attempts to locate the local crime boss (a bearded Vietnam veteran). There’s another where her quest takes her to a hootenanny in a dimly lit sitting room in which six expressionless musicians accompany a middle-aged woman singing a bluegrass folk song.
Director Debra Granik brings this bleak place to quiet life. Her unflinching eyes capture the landscape’s nuances as boldly as if it were a character’s features. One of the joys of this film is its refusal to let the audience rest in lazy certainties, either of character or plot. As the action picks up — with some crone-like family gatekeepers giving Ree a beating in hopes of scaring her off — the strong presence of John Hawkes (as the vanished man’s drug- addicted brother) keeps the bleak setting from overcoming the movie. He gives Lawrence a bit more to play against. The script uses the ancient form of an odyssey. At its end will be Ree’s father, dead or alive. Most likely dead, she begins to conclude. Unless there is a body, her family will be homeless and torn apart.
Lawrence is the focal point of almost every frame — whether at its corner, anguishing over her family’s fate, or refusing to be warned off or frozen out. As Ree’s journey takes her to one character after another, Granik is able to focus on each one’s humanity. They aren’t attractions in a sideshow, but survivors in a shared reality. Do they look at Ree and see a girl in need and a family threatened with eviction? I think they see the danger of their own need. It’s safer to keep quiet and close off. So the film rests on Ree, counter-balanced by Teardrop, who is aggressive with his hatefulness. Granik handles this volatile, borderline horrific material with unblinking ferocity and feeling.
In Lawrence, Granik found just the right actress to inhabit Ree. Her performance is more than acting. Lawrence’s eyes are a roadmap to what’s tearing Ree apart. Her pride will not allow her to mourn or even beg. This is a superb film — original and enthralling — in which the bleakness is slivered with a welcome seam of hope. Winter’s Bone is unforgettable. It means to shake you to your core.
Image source: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images