Winter's Bone: Debra Granik's masterpiece not only gave us Jennifer Lawrence, but a dark journey into America's hinterland
Debra Granik's Ree in Winter's Bone is an unadorned portrait of a woman in the vein of Robert Bresson's Mouchette, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne, and Kelly Reichardt's Wendy.
In Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, the Ozark Mountains of Missouri seem like a forgotten corner, cut off from the rest of America. It feels like a place where dreams go to die. After all, the American Dream has been nothing more than a dream for as long as its inhabitants can remember. Ask Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence). She is a 17-year-old girl, whose only hope of leaving this hellhole is by enlisting in the army. She's still too young of course. But she is forced to grow up quickly with her father missing, her mother catatonic and two young siblings to support. To make matters worse, her father has skipped bail, putting up their house and farm as collateral against his bond. It's a reality harsher than realism, as we follow Ree trace her father's path, from hut to homestead, from swamp to slaughterhouse, to find him before they lose their home and hope with it.
Through Ree, Granik gives us a portrait of a marginalised community which has been left out of the American Dream that promises equal opportunities for freedom and prosperity. For Ree, there's no time for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" when every day is a struggle for survival. Usually, when American films turn its gaze towards these fringe sections, they are depicted as a breeding ground for "rednecks", "hillbillies" and "white trash" who clash with city folk as a defiant response to modernity. We've seen this in John Boorman's Deliverance and Rob Zombie's Firefly films, and even parodied in Eli Craig's Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. But Granik is nothing but empathetic in understanding the struggles of a community embodied by an unyielding girl, willing to do anything to save what little she has.
In Ree's world, peanut butter is a luxury. So, she teaches her siblings her survivalist ways: how to shoot with a rifle and how to skin a squirrel, guiding her brother's hands through its viscera. "Do we eat the guts," he asks. "Not yet," she replies, and you understand just how hard the times are for the Dollys. The purity of Jennifer Lawrence's performance as Ree still inspires awe. In a role stripped of all glamour, she emboldens the story by infusing Ree with a challenging mix of sensitivity and fortitude. In a conversation with an Army recruiter, you realise a tour of Iraq or Afghanistan doesn't scare Ree in the least as she has already been through hell — and Lawrence is so utterly convincing in capturing this numbed pain.
It's a harsh life in a hostile world, observed in such fine detail that the setting transforms into a living, breathing entity suffering through the same struggles as its characters. Granik's framing captures the utter desolation of the landscape: panaromic shots of the arid terrain and the pans over a hillside community dotted with trailers and ramshackle huts. The mise en scène of a yard — cluttered with livestock and poultry, broken-down washing machines and abandoned cars — is interspersed with close-ups on a gallery of faces hardened by the harshness. These are men and women who have lost their work, lost hope and are losing their humanity. They have turned into incestuous clans of drug dealers and killers, living according to their own rules and governed only by the Darwinian law of "survival of the fittest." They either work with animals, or work like animals. Some of them manufacture methamphetamine (like her father) and/or consume them (like her uncle Teardrop). So, they can have the best intentions and be capable of the worst iniquities (like Merab).
Ree struggles to take her family out of this environment of rot and rust that corrupts it. Her journey will see her navigate through hardship after hardship in murky and treacherous territories before she discovers the inevitable truth. Granik's camera and Lawrence's face convey so much with so little. When Ree insists on seeing local meth lord Thump Milton for information on her father, Granik infuses the scene with a palpable portent that becomes almost unbearably nerve-shattering. As Merab (Dale Dickey) and the women drag her into a barn, we can only watch helplessly as the barn door slowly closes on us. Even here, Lawrence's interactions with the other characters and her surroundings are so organic, you feel the emotion behind each gesture and tear.
Ree's journey throughout the film is in the name of her father, but he remains a faceless presence until the very end. He is like a phantom, unseen, unheard and unknown to us throughout the entire duration of the film. Yet, he is continually evoked in silence, and it's the desperation for his presence that gives meaning to Ree's journey and eventual emancipation as she becomes the matriarch of her family. In his review of the film, The New York Times critic AO Scott thus rightly called Ree "a modern-day Antigone." Granik's Ree is an unadorned portrait in the vein of Robert Bresson's Mouchette, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne, and Kelly Reichardt's Wendy. Barring the recognisable first names of these characters, they all capture simultaneously the universalities and singularities of the female experience.
The role of men only seems marginal, as it is the women who live on the margins, acting as custodians, defenders and even muscle for their men when required. When Merab and the other women brutally beat Ree for "causing trouble", they are doing it to defend Thump. Lawrence brilliantly portrays the contradictions of a teenager mature beyond her years but still at the mercy of older men and women who toss her around.
Winter's Bone is a rare film that acknowledges that it is not the pursuit of happiness or wealth — but the means to survive and support one's family — that drives and occupies the waking hours of a majority of Americans. Granik’s film will forever be remembered for introducing the world to the talents of Jennifer Lawrence. But it’s so much more. On each repeat viewing, it goes beyond greatness and gets closer to the realm of spiritually enriching masterpieces.
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