Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik)
On a formal and conceptual level, this film is just about perfect. To the person who’s never spent time in the Ozarks or around isolated, meth-addled rural communities, it’s a remarkable document of and window into an unfamiliar world, rendered vividly and without condescension. And for those all too well acquainted with this specific brand of sprawl and squalor, it can ring painfully true and knowing — which is, to start with, a canny enhancement that comes from the intimate, humane knowledge of novelist Daniel Woodrell of this lifestyle, these atmospherics, these problems. But beneath all this is a structural coup: this is a film that intrigues with its plot but becomes more overcome with its tonal and emotional preoccupations as it goes along. In so many films with appealing central characters and immersive settings, we come to know and feel ourselves seeped in a setting first, before the obligatory hindrances of a carefully (or not carefully) wrought story divert our attention. Winter’s Bone achieves the opposite effect: a fascinating and straightforwardly-spun tale becomes increasingly dreamlike, mythological.
The film follows with moderately lyrical precision a heroically resourceful teenage girl — Ree — living in poverty with a nearly invalid mother and two younger siblings on a farm within a community surrounded by distant relatives whose various interpersonal intricacies could fill a few novels. In perfect Lynchian fashion, an outsider appears in the form of a deputy announcing that Ree’s family is to lose the house if her estranged and difficult to track father doesn’t show up for a pending court date, as he’s used the property as collateral for a bail bond. Thus begins Ree’s quest: to find him and keep her shaky arrangement afloat, something no one thinks she can do.
The specific territories of rural Missouri captured here through the use of non-professionals and genuine “found” locations are not outwardly meant to be a microcosm or to make a political statement, though both things inevitably happen as a side result — and they’re deeply felt and unsentimentally expressive enough for that to work out quite well. Director Debra Granik presents the striking sights, sounds, and strange feelings of this environment with a welcome, nonchalant tenderness and fear, without either demonizing or fetishizing it. That’s a task, given that few things could sound more gimmicky than the notion of a neo-noir film set in backwoods Missouri; Granik conquers the sort of freakish reductionism suggested by that high concept as effortlessly as a Demme or a Renoir. The snapshots of these people we’re given have no “otherness”; there are fearsome things here, and sympathies besides, but nothing is simple or drawn in convenient, screenwriterly terms.
Neo-noir is a hefty proposition easy to fuck up. Rian Johnson’s Brick is one recent example that worked brilliantly, but it existed within a heightened reality only seldom touched by Granik’s film. The Coen Brothers are considered the genre’s chief practitioners now, but their films seldom make it to the end credits without stepping on a few of their characters and regarding them with utter contempt. Posit Winter’s Bone, then, as the anti-Coens: a daring and perceptive mystery that never once takes the easy way out. Ree meets what in the abstract is a classicist Rogue’s gallery of neighbors, family members, eccentrics, villains to try and get some clue to the whereabouts of her father — all are carefully and hauntingly drawn. As the film presses onward and sacrifices some of its linear storytelling, these drab gray beautiful landscapes become some sort of twisted magic: the florescent specter of school life and a conversation with a compassionate military recruiter (immediately getting the full sense of just how much of a burden Ree is carrying), the quintessential noir moment of being knocked out and taken to an undisclosed place to see the Mr. Big of the neighborhood; and in a rather euphorically awful moment, a canoe ride out to a makeshift grave in the dead of night, suggestive of nothing so much as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, oppressive and gorgeous.
Granik’s sympathetic and complete rendering of the film’s world is, without exaggeration, a momentous event. A better match of story, script and setting is difficult to imagine. Though Woodrell and cowriter Anne Rossellini do the story numerous favors by making its high-stakes points without underlining them excessively, Granik’s real co-author is cinematographer Michael McDonough, whose career this deservedly jump-started. You can breathe the air, feel the heaviness, and the use of color is magnificently evocative. And as persuasive as all of the characters are, it’s Ree who gains our trust and the respect afforded a genuine hero; she’s embodied with absolute grace and intelligence by Jennifer Lawrence in a turn of arrestingly hardened wit and maturity. The moment when she’s had her nose bloodied by the meth-snitch mob and is asked what they’re going to do and she curtly spits out “Kill me, I guess” — that’s worth two dozen James Bond pictures. The film may not even want you to love her in any pure sense… but you can’t help it. The sweep of her story and richness of its context, the flavor of the burnt-out houses and rifle practices and the severed hands in a bag, that’s the stuff of a Gothic American fairy tale or fable, “Jess-Belle” up to Washington Irving. Lawrence only lets her character celebrate her triumph at the finale with a slight, sideways smile; as much as this film has worn you out, your elation when it fades will tell the whole, true story.