Already the darling of the Sundance Film Festival, Winter’s Bone comes to Australia with much endorsement and accolade. As I watched this masterpiece, I recalled the scoring system used in driving examinations: a candidate starts with 100% and loses a mark for every misplaced step to determine a final grade. If it were to be marked in this way, Winter’s Bone surely never put a foot wrong.
Unsettling and with unique character from the start, Winter’s Bone is a tale of deterioration and extinction. In the freezing and pristine Ozark woodlands, seventeen-year-old mountain girl Ree Dolly (played with early genius by Jennifer Lawrence) leads a primal, but peaceful existence. Ree is burdened by a mother who is mentally decimated by drug-use and violence. She provides for a brother of twelve and a sister of six and we learn that her conspicuously absent father is neck deep in methamphetamine production and drug feuds. Ree cares for her broken family attentively and firmly, and represents one of the strongest, most admirable and singularly beautiful female protagonists to grace the screen in several years.
The Ozark woodland setting gives this film much of it ominousness. It’s inhabitants all seem to be related in some way, and appear prematurely aged. No new money has come to the area in a long time; front yards are desolate wastelands of broken toys, porches are draped with rocks, bones and furs and locals hunt and prepare their own meat. The visual character of the setting is immediately tangible. All is grey and splintered: the houses, the woods, the people, their possessions. Each property is isolated and residents keep to themselves, as it’s commonly known that meth labs, crack abuse, violence and ruthless family dynasties have long strangled the life and potential from the area. I recently learned that one of the beliefs of Scientologists is that there is a small fraction of people in the world who are not good for you. You might call them ‘Poisonous’. These people must be recognised and removed from your life in order to have a good one. The Ozark woods of Winter’s Bone may well be the place where these nasty people proliferate from, and woe betide anybody who is stuck in the midst of their backwater world.
Drugs and murder have left Ree with no resources, just her resilience. She has long survived her beautiful yet brutal environment by staying close to home and ensuring she is never a witness or informed about any shady goings-on. This is short-lived, however, when “the Law” informs her that she will lose the family home if her absent father doesn’t show up for a court date, and must set out to find him. In such a volatile place, Ree is forced to seek information from dangerous distant family whom she would not normally pursue to find a father she has only reflex love for. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), an unpredictable addict, provides her with a little direction, at the cost of being drawn closer into the volatile heart of her extended family’s corruption.
There is a common technique used in American script-writing across many genres that is employed as an easy way to agitate or stimulate the viewer: the protagonist ‘goes down that corridor’, or ‘doesn’t run away from the monster’ or ‘goes into the dark cellar’. Simply put, they do something the audience would not, and we all say ‘No! Don’t do that!’ Winter’s Bone is exceptional. Ree is written as a woman who knows how to stay out of trouble, but is forced into it, rather than makes mistakes or poor decisions that don’t match her character and are written in for momentum’s sake. Even whilst in the proximity of ugliness or danger, she rarely loses control of herself, and it is this steeliness and outright valour that makes her such a fascinating character, and a joy to behold. Ree does do what the audience would do, and proves that an incredible story can be formed without relying on unlikelihoods to build a plot.
Everything about this film seems to echo decay and stagnation. The music is bittersweet yet antiquated; there are barely any youthful characters, adulthood and hardiness seeming to take over before childhood has ended. The army or the drug ring are the only career options, and when there are children to be taken care of, leaving the gritty woodland is an impossibility. This is stated with huge impact in a very sweet exchange between Ree and an army recruitment officer, played with sensitivity by Russell Schalk.
Winter’s Bone could be described as a survival film, as it illustrates the lengths that humans may go to in order to ensure their own continuation, filing savagery, paranoia or isolation under ‘necessity’. It is also a story of hope, of personal strength, and a cautionary tale suggesting that the best way to survive is to quickly identify and dissociate oneself from those who might be dangerous. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is a triumph, and I have rarely come across a character I have cared more deeply about than Ree Dolly.