Winter’s Bone | movie review

Winter’s Bone is about a rural Missouri teenager whose drug-manufacturing father left her between a rock and a hard place when he put their property up to post his bond and then failed to make his court date.  Ree, the teenage daughter holding together the family for her “sick” (read:  withdrawn and broken) mother and two young siblings has to try and find him—or his body—going to all the places he used to go and all his known associates…all of whom are just as poor and often even more degenerate than he was.  It’s a movie about desperation and consequences, and it creates a mood or melancholy or perhaps simply cold pragmatism that you can’t immediately shake upon leaving its confines.

When you’re talking about a true independent movie—small scale, small story, small budget—I think it’s important to acknowledge where you’re coming from when you discuss whether and why you engaged with the film.  Do you connect with it because it echoes something in your own past?  Or disconnect with it because it should echo, but they got it wrong?  Do you view it as a filter on the world you had never even imagined because it’s so far from your own life?  If so, does it make you more interested in what you’re watching, or bore you?  I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere country, on a horse farm, surrounded by country people and the various types of shadiness that horse dealers embody.  I was never quite this poor, and I was never exposed to the drug trade like this girl was, but much of the landscape and the people and the poverty resonated with my own experience of childhood.  And so for me, this movie had an immediate hook, and the details of their depiction kept me fully invested in not just the story but the entire scene.

The story is spare, told with few unnecessary words and a lot of showing rather than explaining.  The ribs visible on their pet dog.  The children sleeping on the coach and the lazy-boy, clearly because the trailer doesn’t have enough room for them to have bedrooms or maybe even just beds.  The girl taking their horse to the neighbor’s because they can’t afford hay that week.  All of it shows without saying a word directly that this family is barely surviving, and that if their situation remains status quo they might not make it.

The movie was filmed on location in Missouri, in the winter, when the grass is sere and the trees are bare and the wind is restless and incessant.  It felt like winter, just watching it, which certainly lent to the bleakness of the mood.  It felt real.  It made the story feel real.  The small images, not even things that asked for attention but simply were, like the scabs on the little brother’s elbow or the bent up cans that were all they could find for target practice when she decided to teach the kids how to hunt squirrels in case she wouldn’t be there to do it.  Because of that grounding, even the places where the scenario seemed blown up just a little bit beyond reality, for dramatic effect, still seemed real.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story for me was the way it was played through women.  Even though, on the surface, the Ozark drug-dealer/maker culture seemed a very misogynistic society, with the men bossing their women around—tell her no she can’t borrow our truck, tell her no I don’t know where her dad is, tell her I won’t see her; all this telling the women to tell the girl—the events that actually happen are almost exclusively orchestrated and executed by women.  The friend who later comes by with the truck keys he’d given her, after all.  The woman who drops a hint about who the girl should talk to as she’s walking away.  The women who beat her up when she won’t stop asking questions their men find inconvenient.  The only man who acts is her uncle; otherwise, the real actors in the story are female.  I found that an interesting scenario, and probably one that has been going on throughout human history in situations where the men control the surface:  the women move through their own networks to accomplish what they need to, anyway.

I thought the acting was spot-on, especially by the girl playing Ree (Jennifer Lawrence).  She played determination and stubbornness and practicality—very obviously a strong girl who was strong because she had no choice, because there was no one else to lean on or depend on but herself.  Lawrence makes the character accessible and relatable; you want her to succeed, even though all the odds are against her, and you believe it when she doesn’t stop even in the face of horrors almost unimaginable to an average American kid.  The only actors I’d seen before (and recognized, at least) were the uncle, played by John Hawkes AKA the Jew from Deadwood, and the sheriff—Garret Dillahunt AKA Wendell from No Country for Old Men.

Overall I really liked this movie.  It probably isn’t one that I’ll watch repeatedly, but I was glad I saw it.  It certainly kept me engaged and invested through the final scene, and it cast a mood that still lingers when I think back on the film.

By Elena Nola

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.