Dir: Debra Granik
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey and Garrett Dillahunt
The Ozark mountains are inhabited by the same kinds of people that grew up in the Louisiana swamp or the Hawaiian Islands or the Oklahoma plains, or even Siberia: they know how to live in their environment and survive and I don’t. However, in focusing on the Ozark residents, I have great admiration and respect for the kinds of things they do to stay alive. Like hunting squirrels, giving the horse they can’t feed to their neighbor so it doesn’t starve and sleeping together (not in a gross way, in a survival way) to keep warm. These are folks I want to root for. Their neighbors – and sometimes their fellow family members – that cook methamphetamine to cut corners, I do not like or respect.
Without the meth cookers, Ree Polly, played magnificently and maturely by Jennifer Lawrence (see note 1), wouldn’t go on the little adventure this story concerns. The first few scenes, like so many independent films (see my entry on Frozen River), are very stark, efficient (in that they waste no time) and plot driven. In Winter’s Bone, these Act 1 scenes introduce Ree Polly’s situation: her Mother, poor woman, has gone a little ill in the head from her Father’s behavior. The local sheriff (the consistent Deadwood alumni Garrett Dillahunt) comes to advise Ree that her Dad skipped bail and that their family could lose the house in about a week’s time as a result. If he’s alive, he needs to come in. Have I mentioned that Ree is seventeen years old? Oh! And she’s caring for her twelve year old brother and her seven year old sister. Even though she desperately needs to find her Dad, Ree makes these kids a priority: I’ll use the example of her showing them how to make deer stew (I’m not making this up) in one scene.
I suppose the resulting story might be called an odyssey in that we meet some very curious cats along the way as Ree searches for her Dad. You might also call it a private eye film because of its investigative nature. But I have to say, I was gripped by this story from start to finish. I think it’s a natural thing to want to know the secret, to wonder what goes on in those creepy woods and how exactly these people make ends meet. Winter’s Bone does a great job of answering these questions in a very entertaining and engaging way. Let me give an example of one other scene to demonstrate that despite Ree’s limited understanding of things, she asks the questions, digests the information and keeps going. She figures she should join the Army. Why? Because she’ll get forty thousand dollars cash money to do so! Unfortunately, Ree has no clue whatsoever the commitment involved to receive that sum of money. The Sergeant interviewing her at the local Army office is very sincere in his answers, bless him. He helps Ree understand the commitment she’s diving into in that she won’t be able to leave at night to take care of her brother and sister. This fact might seem obvious to you and I: but that’s the cool thing about the heroine in Winter’s Bone. Ree knows it now, she understands it, digests it, and most importantly, starts to brainstorm new ideas for her family’s survival.
I can’t remember which early film icon said this, but they were quoted as saying, “A good film has three great scenes and no bad ones.” Welp, Winter’s Bone fits that category, and believe me, it has several great scenes. Instead of watching yet another episode of NCIS or Law and Order, why not pick this one up?
Note 1: I look up a lot of material after I see a swell movie like this one, and my jaw did the proverbial drop when I saw some of Miss Lawrence’s other headshots and promotional photos: she is one gorgeous woman that really embodied the character (no makeup, blood on her sleeve if the scene called for it, etc).
Note 2: I particularly like movies like Winter’s Bone because they force the viewer to look at a community in a new way. It’s virtually impossible to point to the map and say, “Arksansas! HA! Bunch of hilljacks!” after watching this movie. The characters in this film aren’t statistics and they aren’t stereotypes: they’re people just like the rest of us.