Review: Winter’s Bone
Modern media has turned America into a nation of two coasts, with one giant field in between. TV shows take place on one coast or the other. Most Hollywood films are birthed before the strip malls of LA or under the lights of New York City. To the cultural lens, the lives carried out between those two poles are too often ignored, as are the unique circumstances and problems facing those dwelling in the ancient parts of America even further down in the national consciousness. The Ozark Mountains of Missouri are just such an ancient haunt, a poor and seclusive region filled with tradition and the ghosts of heroes from a time long gone, with no new heroes to replace them. Or least that’s the theory. There are indeed heroes operating in these forelorn places at the heart of our country, and sometimes it takes a film like Winter’s Bone to give them a voice amidst the shrieking of bi-coastal narcissism.
Winter’s Bone is one the greatest American “odyssey” films in recent history, a hero’s journey through a part of the world few now realize still exists. It follows a young girl named Ree Dolly, thrust into the role of caretaker of her younger siblings thanks to a psychologically damaged mother and a meth-cooking father who has gone missing. To keep bondsmen from taking their home, Ree must track down her father, whether he’s dead or alive. And so begins her journey, a walk into the heart of darkness marked not by grandiose stands or traditional heroic pompery, but by superhuman grit and an inability to back down in the face of resistance. Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation in the title role, playing the hero not as the symbolic feminist stalwart that many Hollywood films would prop her up as, but simply as a tough young woman willing to do anything for those she loves.
Her search for her father through the poverty-choked and meth-addicted foothills of the Ozarks allows the film to serve as a tour of a region seemingly lost in time. For all their reclusive ticks and occasionally monstrous behavior, the people standing in Ree’s way come through more as symptoms of a larger tragic circumstance than the evil hillbilly caricatures that you’d see in lesser films like Deliverance. Methamphetamine is a virus that has infected this entire region, latching itself onto the populace either as an escape via addiction or a rare means of financial gain in a world decimated by poverty and forgotten by the national social consciousness. This is the only means of subsistence these people seem to have, and any threat to it must be blocked out and, if it will not be blocked out, then destroyed. Ree, a native of these parts and even family to many of these people, finds herself an outsider and a threat to the desperate way of life, and the resistance she encounters is frequently harrowing. These people have been insular and wary of outsiders from many generations, and the elicit nature of the drug trade only makes them quicker on the trigger. Woebetide the one who tries to break into this airtight ancient society. But Ree will not wilt. She’s been imbued with the toughness of this land, but unlike the lost souls impeding her quest, she’s maintained a rock-solid moral compass amid rampant lawlessness.
The humanity on display by the actors is astonishing. Aside from Lawrence’s Oscar-worthy work as the heroine, John Hawkes is magnificent as a brooding uncle who never ceases to surprise with his action. He’s a wonderful character and a perfect encapsulation of the warring elements of this world. Director Debra Granik’s camera never calls attention to itself. It lets these characters bloom and the landscape breathe, and her precision and stirring sensitivity as a filmmaker deserve Oscar consideration just as much as last year’s breakthrough female winner.
This is the kind of American hero story we see far too little of. This is not about bombastic war speeches or hard-boiled car chases. This isn’t even about stopping the bad guys or putting one’s boot to the throat of evil. This is about survival, about looking out for those close to you and holding them tight amidst the existential storm. This is a simple, powerful story about a heroic young woman holding out a torch in a land of darkness. You may not see a better film of this kind for a long time.