Winter's Bone

 

film Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as Teardrop

This gripping depiction of ‘hillbilly country’ avoids patronising its subjects, writes Donald Clarke

WHEN NEWS emerged that something called Winter’s Bone had won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival, some cynical veterans – those some distance from Utah – cast their eyes knowingly to heaven. It’s not just the title. Consider the plot: a poor girl from the Ozarks discovers her father, a crystal-meth dealer, has put the family home up for a bail bond. Why, it reads like a Family Guy parody of a Sundance winner. All that’s missing is a valiant struggle against adult illiteracy.

As it happens, Debra Granik’s film turns out to be a jarring, disorienting, hugely original slice of mountain noir. Unlike the superficially similar, somewhat over-praised Frozen River – another champ at Park City – the picture never drifts into melodrama, and never seems patronising towards its chosen milieu. Every sprocket hole appears coated with genuine Missouri grit.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, author of the source material for Ang Lee’s great Ride with the Devil, Winter’s Bone tells its story in bald, linear fashion. Ree Dolly, the indomitable 17-year-old protagonist, lives in a knocked-together shack in a cloudy, snowbound corner of a sparsely populated mountain community. Her dad has gone missing and her mother no longer has any inclination to care for Ree’s two younger siblings. It fast becomes clear that the family will be evicted if her father doesn’t return to face justice. An unlikely detective, Ree pumps neighbours and family members for information, but she quickly realises that such investigations are not altogether welcome. Her uncle (John Hawkes) reacts with genuine hostility. During one particularly grim encounter, it looks as if a cadre of neighbours – muttering grimly in the corner of a barn – might be entertaining the notion of battering her to death.

The film certainly works as a character study. Jennifer Lawrence, a promising young actor who received awards for her performance in The Burning Plain, manages to blend equal degrees of unrelenting determination and creased vulnerability into her portrayal of a young woman driven by desperation. Fear exists side-by-side with resolve.

You might argue that Winter’s Bone is less successful as a thriller. So overwhelming is the compulsion to render authentic atmosphere, that the details of the mystery tend to get glossed over in slightly perfunctory fashion. Unusually for a film based on a crime novel, Winter’s Bone doesn’t seem concerned with untangling clues and gutting red herrings.

Where the picture really succeeds, however, is as a pungent, comprehensive depiction of a somewhat overlooked American locale. Drawing heavily on Woodrell’s novel, Granik layers the film with convincing details of backwoods life. We see the citizens tucking into a meal of recently barbecued squirrel. One household surges with the area’s characteristically salty music. Everywhere Ree goes, we sense a US that has never quite come to terms with the 20th century. Mobile phones are rare. Computers are just about invisible.

There are sensitivities to be observed here. The Ozarks have long been caricatured as hillbilly country and, sure enough, Granik spreads lashings of sinister, atavistic energy about the place. Winter’s Bone is simultaneously a rigorous travelogue and an exercise in earthy gothic.

We are, however, never in doubt that the film-makers care for their subjects, and sympathise with their outsider status. This comes through most conspicuously in the scene where Ree makes a slightly pathetic attempt to enlist in the US army. The concerned recruiting officer has obviously seen too many desperately poor women offer up their lives to assist crumbling families. The viewer listens to Ree’s round vowels and recalls the voices of all those traumatised soldiers interviewed in Baghdad and Kandahar.

This is a gripping story from an ignored community.

yyy See interview with Debra Granik, p8