Elevate Difference

Winter’s Bone

In my review of 2009’s Oscar-nominated film Precious I stated that it was incredibly difficult to objectively review the film because the realism that is presented is so detached from my own circumstances. After seeing Debra Granik’s gritty Winter’s Bone I find myself faced with a similar conundrum, although not to such an extreme.

For people living in the rural areas of the Ozark mountains a fulfilled life is not one of luxury. The goal for an individual is simply to survive rather than thrive in the harsh natural and social environment. The world presented in Granik’s dark thriller seems desolate and cold, but through the female protagonist it manages to glimmer with hope. Brilliantly filmed against the poetic landscapes of the Ozark mountains, Winter’s Bone is a glimpse into rural morality and the emergence of an unlikely hero.

Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination for her performance as Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old with a lot of responsibility. She is the chief caregiver of her two younger siblings, she lives with her nearly catatonic mother, and she only occasionally shows up for school. Her meth-dealing father has been arrested, posted the family’s house as bail, and vanished. If he does not show up at court, the family will lose their house and be thrown into a world where they have more enemies than friends.

The narrative is essentially straight forward, which allows Granik to lace the film with tension. Granik brilliantly proves that action does not equal tension and most scenes start and end on high notes with an anticipated release that never comes. At its heart, Winter’s Bone is a film noir with a missing person chase, a look into an underground crime world, and a feeling of constant danger. Lawrence successfully creates a new feminist hero that also harkens back to the great noir detectives of the 1940s.

In a low populated area like the rural Ozarks, the morality that is presented does not fit the mold that urban and suburban dwellers have become accustomed to. When a significant portion of the workforce consists of unskilled laborers, the job market is incredibly volatile. In one scene Ree sees her only two possible futures in two separate school rooms: join the army and escape or become a mother and join her miserable relatives.

Nobody appears content with their existence in Winter’s Bone except for the children who only appear in the film in brief segments where they can be seen jumping on a trampoline or playing in hay. The fact that the children get such joy out of such meager circumstances shows that Ree’s fight is worth it.

Cross-posted from Film Misery

Written by: Alex Carlson, July 7th 2010

I wouldn't classify this as film noir. It doesn't have the genre conventions: femme fatale, focus on tricks and cons, melodrama, etc. I suppose you could argue that the uncle character is the classic anti hero, but he has been displaced by the teenage girl as the central figure. And I saw the bungling cop as more of a statement on the way sex and gender function in this environment than an acknowledgment of roots in 1940's cinema. If I had to put this into a genre it would be horror, with a sub-genre of rural American Gothic. There's something marvelous about how the director manages to strip melodrama away and yet heighten some of the film's mythic elements. I was riveted by how useless the men seemed to be and how full of agency most of the women were, even the harpies who finally bring the story to its conclusion. Film noir is usually about the answer to the mystery. The answer to Winter's Bone's mystery is far less important than how the central problems of poverty and starvation are dealt with by the resourceful teen.