Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt
Directed by Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
I think I postponed watching Winter’s Bone because it looked like it might be bleak and emotionally devastating. And it is. There is hope and sweetness, but they are bright spots in a beautiful, brutal world. Much like the noir detective searching for truth in a corrupt and diseased city, Ree Dolly navigates the treacherous, meth-corrupted backwoods of her home county, knowing that asking one too many questions might get her killed, but unable to walk away without an answer. Debra Granik’s movie does a spectacular job of pulling viewers into the grim story, and the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes make you believe in this place, this life, and these people. That’s what makes the fear, the violence, and the desperation so powerful. This is a powerful movie, skillfully crafted, and I feel like watching it again.
The story follows Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a teenager whose meth cook father has gone missing, leaving her alone to take care of her two younger siblings and demented mother. The family is abjectly poor, forcing Ree to accept charity to keep the children fed, and to contemplate hard decisions to keep the family going. Although there’s a sense that she might be distantly related to some of her neighbors, it is clear that Ree is isolated and alone. When the sheriff comes to tell her that her father, Jessup, jumped bail and the family will lose the house if he doesn’t show up for trial, no one, not even her uncle, wants to help her. It’s up to Ree to find her father and save her family.
We immediately feel for Ree, and admire her strength of character. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is pitch perfect. Ree is strong, proud and prickly to those who try to stop her, and heartbreakingly alone. She embodies one of my favorite hardboiled detective virtues, that of the investigator that not only won’t stop, but can’t stop. No amount of warnings or threats of violence can keep her from the answers. At the same time, we’re not allowed to forget that she’s a young girl in an oppressively adult world. At one point, Ree turns to her mother and begs “What do I do? Please tell me what to do” and her mother says nothing, so mentally absent she can’t even comprehend her daughter’s desperation. Ree is so determined and brave that you can’t help but cheer her on, but she is also so alone that you fear for her as she goes to confront each new challenge. It is too much weight for a girl of seventeen to bear. There is a sense of drowning, overwhelmed, with no escape.
Her only other family is her uncle Teardrop, played with scary brilliance by John Hawkes, and he’s not helping. He may, in fact, be the first to really show us how far over her head Ree really is. When we first see him, he’s loading a gun, acting tough and all business, but the truth is that the path she’s taking scares him. That fear, I think, is part of what makes him one of the few people we come to trust, at least in part. We trust his intentions and motivations, because they are straightforward. Contrast this with the sheriff, played by Garrett Dillahunt. The law is an outsider, and even though Ree is alone, she greets the sheriff with nothing but venom. It is quickly established that we can’t trust the sheriff’s offers of assistance; we know instinctively, so closely are we inhabiting Ree’s world, that he doesn’t actually have her best interests at heart. Everyone who could help her is either actively working against her, untrustworthy, or too scared to do anything but warn her away. But Ree won’t scare. Because Dollys don’t run.
Implicit in every interaction Ree has during her quest is a threat, and when those threats turn into actual violence it is explosive and terrifying. Living in this constant state of tension, it’s no wonder that Ree longs to escape by joining the Army, hoping to use the substantial signing bonus to support her family. There is a perpetual fear of hope being snatched away, because this world is just not on Ree’s side. This world does not encourage hope, and attempts to escape can have deadly consequences. Failing to escape, however, can be just as bad, when the bondsman can take away your home, and there’s never enough to eat. Violence, and fear, and desperation are never overused in Winter’s Bone, but their cumulative weight, sometimes felt only after enough time has passed for some dreadful realization to sink in, settles over the viewer like a rain-soaked blanket, omnipresent and inescapable.
I found myself thinking, afterward, about pundits who criticized the Obama administration for working to get more people on government assistance, as if it were a campaign to cultivate dependence. When I look at this movie, it becomes obvious what that campaign is actually about. It’s about people like Ree, people who are vulnerable and living right on the edge, a step away from the abyss. I’ve been fortunate in my life to never have been so impoverished, so without support, that I had to contemplate splitting my family in order to live. I’ve never known the kind of hopelessness that Ree knows. And while this is a fiction, I have no trouble believing in people like Ree, whose lives are so fraught that they have trouble even believing in that kind of help. I think those who fight against government anti-poverty programs are exactly the reason so many people remain in poverty. They are the ones who take hope away.
Winter’s Bone is an absolutely beautiful film, which is strange to say, considering its content. It is startling, and upsetting, and bleak in the best possible way. The final image, and final implications, ought to break your heart, if you are remotely human. And it is absolutely worth it, for the brilliance of the performances and an immensely well-done tale.