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For Your Consideration: 'Winter's Bone'

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Winter's Bone (directed by
Debra Granik)

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Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone
In Winter's Bone director Debra Granik revisits the same basic set of issues, drug use and its impact on families, as her only other major feature, the sleeper Down to the Bone, from 2004, and her short film Snake Feed. The landscape of Winter's Bone is the desperate poverty of the Missouri Ozarks, the favored milieu of novelist Daniel Woodrell, whose book of the same name was adapted in the screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini. The scourge of methamphetamine, its dangerously explosive cooking labs and life-crushing addiction, pervades the extended family at the center of the story, but somehow the headstrong Ree, played with calm beauty and strong-jawed determination by relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, has managed to make it to the age of 17 without succumbing to it.

Ree has been dealt a bad hand: her father's free-roving meth adventures have left her mother depressed and non-functional and Ree in charge of two younger children, Sonny (tow-headed Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (whimsical Ashlee Thompson). Food is scarce, the weather is cold, and ends in general are not meeting, even with the grudging help of neighbors and relations. Worse, the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt, just the right amount of douchey) informs her that her dad put up their house and land when he posted his last bail. If he does not turn up for his court date, they will lose everything, leading to a premise not unlike that in True Grit: this straight-shooting teenage girl goes on a manhunt, in this case for her own drug-dealing father.

Ree's isolation is captured in the sunless, bleak evocation of the Ozarks (cinematography by Michael McDonough) and the rough-faced cast of characters who enforce a clan code as harsh as that in Shakespeare's Macbeth. There are many laudable performances in minor roles, making this a company achievement, although the axis of tension is between Lawrence's Ree and John Hawkes as Ree's hapless and slightly creepy uncle, Teardrop. Both Lawrence and Hawkes received Oscar nominations that they will probably not win: Natalie Portman appears to have Best Actress sewn up for Black Swan (of the film's nominations, the one I would argue with the least), and Geoffrey Rush would get my vote as Best Supporting Actor for The King's Speech.

Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | David Denby | A. O. Scott | Washington Post | Wall Street Journal
Los Angeles Times | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

Best Picture is a long shot, but the film's best chance at an award may be for Best Adapted Screenplay, because Granik and Rosellini use story and sharpened dialogue to create the vivid backdrop of the Ozarks. The antiquated customs -- waiting to be invited over a home's threshold, invoking common blood between relations, not asking for "what oughta be offered" -- and the quirks of Ozark English are note-perfect: true, much comes from Woodrell's book rather than Granik, who grew up in Bethesda, outside Washington, but it was by no means certain that the book's narrative would make it to the screen so well. It does not need to bludgeon the viewer over the head with the plot's turns or make the characters into simple types: in fact, much remains unclear even at the end. In one of the best of many good scenes that fill in small details, Ree happens upon the birthday party being celebrated by some of her distant relatives. The down-home music performed by actual musician Marideth Sisco and her band Blackberry Winter (they also performed the cleaned-up version of Missouri's state song, the Missouri Waltz), part of a fine soundtrack with original music by Dickon Hinchliffe of the Tindersticks, is not window dressing but part of an organic whole, the simple sound that goes with the bleak landscape.


Martin said...

"Note perfect": do you suppose this film accurately depicts life in the Ozarks as it is lived today? I know very little about rural poverty first hand and my brief exposure was over thirty years ago. It seems very low-tech for the contemporary drug black market.

Still, a terrific movie on every level. Anyone who appreciates this would appreciate "Frozen River."

Or "Justified" on TV for that matter.

Charles T. Downey said...

I am not from the Missouri Ozarks either, but Woodrell's "country noir" books are based on close observation. What Granik did to translate it to film was to go there and speak to people while shooting on location. As for the cooking of crank, it is pretty low-tech in one sense, which is what leads to so many explosions. Sadly, it has become sort of the modern equivalent of the backwoods still.

Martin Fritter said...

Thanks, but I mean _really_ low tech - no cell phones, The whole world seemed from the 1950s.

Telling point about the backwoods stills: a cultural continuity going back to the Whiskey Rebellion and before.

Do you know Fisher's "Albion's Seed?" The section on the colonial southern highlands is mind blowing. These people quite literally go back to Macbeth.

If I may, here's an outgoing link to something I wrote which you may find interesting. You are of course free to excise it from this post if you wish.

Charles T. Downey said...

Oh, yes, now I understand what you meant. Yes, there they are, cutting wood to heat the house and shooting squirrels for dinner.

Yes, the studies on the continuity of Renaissance English dialects, both linguistic and musical, with Appalachian culture are fascinating.

Please include the link again, just as text. Sometimes the URL tag does not work.

Martin Fritter said... - Fisher's book is a revelation.