Sunday, 24 June 2012

Winter's Bone (2010)

Dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt

There are unwritten codes that govern life in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. Blood and kinship is important. One should never ask for help; it should be offered. Never step foot inside a man’s house without the man (and it is always the man) granting permission. And keep your mouth shut – don’t gossip, don’t blacken someone’s name, and never, ever, talk to the police. 

It is this web of codes that 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must navigate. She is responsible for looking after two younger siblings and a mother suffering from mental illness in the absence of her crank-cooking father Jessup. When he skips bail – having left all the family’s property as security – she has to find him and persuade him to return for trial to stop their home being seized. Once that trial date has passed, however, her mission changes; the only way to protect her family is to present proof that her father is dead. 

It soon becomes apparent that these are missions which are not popular. No one wants Ree to be asking the questions she is asking. It becomes clear that there is a conspiracy of silence. Those that do know the truth about her father’s disappearance are prepared to fight to keep their secrets; even those that do not know the truth recognise that asking questions is a sure-fire way to get into trouble. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) puts it plainly: if she discovers who killed his brother he does not want to know. Knowing puts him in peril. As the film ends he states that he knows the name of the killer. He says it quite sadly. There are two ways to read his reaction. Firstly, that he knows that he is now in danger because of his knowledge (which would explain why he returned to banjo to Ree). Or secondly, that he is now expected to avenge his brother’s death, perpetuating a bloodfeud. He is not keen for either result. When Ree pokes her nose in too far the fact that she is an innocent 17-year-old girl can only protect her so far. She is beaten – but only by women because the local code of honour prevents men from laying hands upon her. She is asked what she thinks should happen next. She bites back that maybe they should kill her. Melissa comments that ”That idea’s been said already”. Ree only wants to get to the truth to protect her family. She is so devoted to this that she is kinda hard-core. To get to the end of the story she has to be exposed to an awful side of life that most people are thankfully sheltered from. Her determination is inspiring.

It is a hardscrabble existence in the hills. The homes are hand-made, people have guns to hunt for the table, and wood needs chopping for the fire. And Ree and her family are the poorest of the poor, even though they are not yet quite at the bottom. Skinning a shot squirrel her younger brother asks whether they eat the intestines. Ree’s answer is “Not yet” implying that she knows there will come a time when they will have to just to survive. Before his arrest her father was engaged in crime – principally the production and sale of methamphetamines (“crank”). Ree accepts this as fact, even seems proud that he was good at it. She may not take drugs herself, but she appreciates that it was a career that provided for the table. The wooded and difficult terrain makes the Ozarks the perfect place to secrete meth labs. It is a location that encourages clannishness; the inhabitants all seem to be related to each other, even if at several removes. 

Teardrop refused to accept another three points on his licence

It is not a pleasant film to watch. There is no glamour, just a stubborn heroism. The nearest it comes to sudden action is the suspenseful scene where Teardrop faces down the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt). That is one scene that will definitely live long in the memory, along with the passage where Ree is finally taken by boat to bring back her father. There is a creeping dread pervading the entire picture, as the viewer realises that there is very little hope for people from these communities. Shipping out with the army is about the best that they can hope for. It is very affecting and very memorable. And in Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly it has provided us with an inspiring heroine for these troubled times. 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
The Ozark hills look quite bleak, and the life of its inhabitants seems even bleaker. This seems a land where the only escapes are childbirth or joining the army. Or drugs. Home-made laboratories for ‘crank’ (methamphetamines) dot the landscape. Everyone seems to be either making it or using it, and the local criminal bosses are not people to be messed with. Those who threaten their control get beaten or killed. Bodies are buried or fed to the hogs. Even for those who do get involved with this illegal subculture life is hard. People live in rundown farms or cluttered trailers. Guns are common and so is hunting – squirrel and deer helps to round out the diet. Any vehicle that is not a truck is remarked upon as being out of place. The men wear beards and baseball caps and the women seem beaten down by life. There is no social services safety net except for the kindness and generosity of neighbours.  

Legitimate business seems to revolve around cattle. Fiddle and banjo bluegrass music is the soundtrack to celebrations. Ties of kinship are important – but they cannot get one everything. Talking about things that out not to be mentioned is a bad idea. 

Can we go there?
I’m not sure I’d particularly want to travel down into the Ozarks. The forested hills are meant to be areas of great beauty. The stark winter landscapes shown in this film suggest barrenness rather than beauty to my eyes. And the local craft industry isn’t much to my taste either. 

But for die-hard fans, the film was shot entirely on location in Christian and Taney counties in southern Missouri, stretching down to the Arkansas Line. Forsyth Public School featured, as did the stock yards in Springfield. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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