Ree, Teardrop, Thump, Jessup, Merab. You can tell by just by the names in Winter's Bone that you're entering unusual territory. That would be the rugged and isolated country of the Ozarks in Missouri, which are distinguished here less by blue hills than by burned down meth labs, ramshackle log cabins, and junk strewn lawns. Only the firearms are in good condition. The faces of the locals are as beaten down and hardened as their surroundings, and more than a few have the sallow skin and crooked teeth of meth addicts. Why then does every one in this movie seem so damn wise? "Your woodpile's getting low" says Gail, a hefty lump of a woman, and it comes out like some essential truth. Everyone speaks sparingly, as if words can only be driven out by necessity, but also as if they don't even need to say anything to understand each other. They all share the same hardships, the same traditions, the same concepts of honor and necessity. And they're often literally part of the same family.
In a movie where people make it a business of being tough and impenetrable, 17 year old protagonist Ree Dolly is perhaps the toughest of them all, although she can still be vulnerable. When we first find her, she's already on her own, raising two siblings on squirrel meat (yes, squirrels were skinned and gutted in the making of this picture) while her mother is incapacitated and her father, Jessup, is off somewhere evading the law. She dreams of joining the military, but even that's a far off goal. Things just get worse from there when the actual conflict starts and she has to go hunting for her missing father in order to avoid losing the roof over her head (he put the house up for his bond). "Don't go running after Jessup" warns her menacing uncle Teardrop. She stubbornly refuses, and starts greeting a slew of increasingly mean and dangerous individuals with unrelenting fearlessness and a cold stare that says she means business.
Winter's Bone has rightly been categorized as a thriller--Ree's search leads her into some pretty murky waters-- but it doesn't put in any more plot than is good for it. Rather than getting caught up in genre conventions and a complicated web of intrigue, it offers scares and mysteries that, while gruesome, seem entirely plausible. And after all, the scariest thing for Ree is the prospect of losing her home.
It's important, also, to point out that director Debra Granik didn't make this movie so that privileged audiences could gawk at the backwards ways of the hill folk--Winter's Bone isn't a pleasant movie by any means, but it doesn't concentrate solely on the unpleasantness. The showing I went to was followed by a question and answer section with the director, and when she was asked how the movie was received in America she noted that the response was positive, but that people often got stuck up on how "bleak" the movie was and couldn't see anything else. There's a lot beyond that. The people in Winter's Bone may not have much, but they have their strength, their courage, and the blood bonds that tie them together. As another interview with the director points out, this movie is the anti-Deliverance. The banjo--long synonymous with deranged hicks and man rape--has been repurposed as a symbol of hope.
Winter's Bone is a masterful film. It's suspenseful, involving, and often poignant. Everything from Jennifer Lawrence's astoundingly mature performance as Ree Dolly to the dreary and occasionally beautiful location shots works to create a setting so convincing that by the end of the movie, even I felt a kinship with Ree and Teardrop. Watching it in a theater full of Parisians who, I assume, saw the America in this movie as some sort of barbaric alien culture, I could have easily felt a little embarrassed that "our" nation harbors such debilitating poverty. But in scenes like the one where Ree teaches her brother and sister, who are 5 and 12, the art of survival, helping them point rifles at squirrels and telling them to sit on their knees like they're praying, I felt, more than anything, a tinge of pride.
A little bit more about the Q & A after the film with Debra Granik and Jennifer Lawrence...
This was the French premiere of the film and, apparently, Jennifer Lawrence's first time in Paris so it was a pretty exciting event. Unfortunately, all questions and answers had to pass through a translator, which was probably unnecessary given that 90% of French people understand English. So Debra and Jennifer would say a few words before being stopped so that the same thing could be repeated in another language and embellished. It disrupted the flow of the conversation to say the least. Anyways, here are some things that I learned:
-Jennifer Lawrence is of Kentuckian origin and Granik was immediately impressed with her in that she was one of the few auditioning actresses who wasn't nervous about the Southern accent. Nonetheless, she is not her film character. She's cheerful and exuberant, and if I didn't know better, I would have said she was a California girl bred and buttered. Asked about the response to the film in her home state, she said that people were surprised that such a world existed only a few hours away, but that everyone liked it. Or at least that's what they said to her face, she joked.
-Asked who she thought would win the best actress award, Jennifer paused. "Am I allowed to say"? "Maybe I should ask my publicist." But she did say. The answer was... Natalie Portman. :( Probably, but at 20, Lawrence is the 2nd youngest nominee and has a long future ahead of her.
-Debra Granik, who is much more soft spoken than Jennifer, was asked about the boat scene, which is the climax of the movie. She said that they had everything against them for that scene. They were shooting in day for night (much like the climactic scene in Deliverance, I noted) and the crew was waist deep in water for hours. But what really pulled the scene together and gave it the emotional weight it needed was the sheer grueling nature of the shoot. When one character in the movie lifts a chainsaw to *spoilers* cut Jessup's hands, the actress really needed to go through the same motions, to lift that chainsaw. All of the actresses in the boat had to concentrate on the task at hand in the same way their on-screen women did; they had a mission and they had to do everything that was necessary to accomplish it.