WINTER’S BONE :: Oscar Ritual 2011
The buzz surrounding Winter’s Bone has been focused on two things: the heartbreaking performance by its lead, Jennifer Lawrence, and the bleak landscape of poverty-stricken (and meth-addled) life in the Ozarks. The film has been nominated by most every film festival and awards organization throughout North America, and Lawrence has been singled out as one of the most promising new actors in the business. I was prepared to be unsettled by the film, even while finding it engaging, but I wasn’t prepared to find such heart and hope in the midst of the story’s tragic setting. Winter’s Bone deserves all the praise that surrounds it.
Whereas artistic communities may have found the truth of life in the hills of the Ozarks to be unimaginable, I quickly realized that I wasn’t at all shocked by that aspect of the story. It is devastating, to be certain, and there is great poverty in this area of the country, but somehow that felt familiar to me. I’ve known people who lived at the lowest possible level, who have made their lives on the very land and in the very homes that were built generations before and handed down through families. They had no way of escaping their poverty, they had no assistance beyond their own families, and the reality of their lives was that everyone was lucky to be able to get through just one more day without their entire world collapsing around them. Being unable to provide for their families’ own basic needs forced them to do anything they could, no matter how awful, just to be able to provide food and shelter. And that life also created a rigid pride in them, a belief that asking for help is a weakness of spirit. I’ve known people who lived in that environment. Some of my own extended family may even be part of that kind of community. In fact, there is an entire region of Texas where this way of life is common, so I was not horrified by the setting of Winter’s Bone, though it is definitely tragic.
What did shock me in the film was the interpersonal relationships that were played out. The lead character of Ree Dolly is a teenager who has been forced to become the primary caretaker of her home and her family after her father leaves and her mother has a mental breakdown. Ree provides everything from food to clothing to daily household duties for her incapacitated mom and two younger siblings, and she performs all of the tasks required to keep her homestead in working order. Without any income she must scrounge whatever she can find, and she holds firm to the belief that she should not ask for help from anyone. She tells her younger brother that “you should never ask for what ought to be offered.” And so she does the best she can to provide any kind of food she can find, which is quite often a small animal from the woods on her family’s land. Ree is the picture of fortitude, and in Lawrence’s tough-but-tender performance, it is truly heartbreaking.
The crux of the story is how Ree is forced to traverse the harsh landscape of the Ozark hills in search of her father who seems to have jumped bail on a drug charge and must now appear for his court date. He used the family’s only asset, their ramshackle house and few acres of timberland, as his bond, and if he doesn’t appear in court the family will be evicted. Ree takes it upon herself to track him down, knowing that it will force her to go deep into the meth-trade community that litters her part of the world. The fact that she’s willing to take on the men who are feared by even the local police is evidence of her resolve to keep the last vestiges of her family’s life intact. But in her search she must contend with a closed-mouth community (which includes some of her own kin) that would rather beat her silent for asking questions than provide one single word of truth. To help her is to expose their own dealings, and that is simply not to be done. The story of Ree’s unwillingness to back down is what elevates Winter’s Bone to greatness. What she must do in order to save her family and their home is what tears the heart to shreds.
Despite the devastating events, the film actually contains a great deal of hope. Characters who appear to be the worst kind of people actually begin to surprise by the end of the film, and events that caused me to squirm and gasp in disbelief became the backbone of everything that makes the film special. There are many familiar actors in the cast, including John Hawkes, Sheryl Lee and Garret Dillahunt (who continues to wow me with his chameleon qualities), but a great many people who appear are also native to the area where they filmed the movie. That fact, and the rural Ozark setting, is what gives Winter’s Bone its realism. Critics have begun calling it “an American classic,” and it is insofar as it depicts a way of life that is more prominent in our country than we want to admit. For this reason the film feels much more like a documentary than a fictional story, and I believe that’s what keeps drawing people to it. It is a film that can never be forgotten.
image from IMDB, linked to source