Winter’s Bone (2010; dir. Debra Granik) gives us a backwoods, off-road apocalyptic world in which methamphetamines have ravaged an entire culture. Rundown farms, shacks, unworked farms, rusting trailers are visual icons throughout. Blood ties that bind extended families (everyone seems somehow related) have deteriorated to the point that they mean very little. Violence is always a potential, especially violence of men against women, yet women participate along with men in the criminal network that supports the meth trade. Vestiges of old times are occasionally evident, in photographs, in two scenes where residents sit and play music together. Even the farm where Ree lives is evidence of an earlier time when people made a living there. But mostly the film shows us a devastated social and cultural landscape.
Jennifer Lawrence, in her first film, plays the oldest daughter Ree, in a family whose father has disappeared, whose mother is permanently disabled (probably due to meth use). Ree cares for two younger siblings, struggling from day to day to find food and keep their lives going. Crisis comes when Ree learns that her father has put the farm up to cover his bail. If he doesn’t appear for a hearing she will lose the farm, and they all will be homeless.
Ree sets out to find her father, moving from one house or trailer to another, asking questions, gradually discovering that though people may know where her father is, they’re not talking. The more she learns, the more people become aware that she is asking questions, the deeper in trouble she finds herself.
Poverty is abject. Image on image of hopeless scenes accumulate.
How real are the scenes and the people in this film? The poverty is authentic—I have seen places and people like those in this film. And the drawn, emotionless faces of the people who pass through the film are authentic, though they are not drawn enough, and Jennifer Lawrence’s character Ree seems too healthy for a girl who struggles from day to day to find food. Poverty in films such as this one—and Winter’s Bone is about as earnest in its realism as one can imagine—is never as poor as it ought to be. Despite the worn and probably hand-me-down clothes characters wear, they don’t seem dirty enough, the human faces are too clean and unblemished. On the other hand, the faces in the film remind us of the faces in the Walker Evans’ photographs of Appalachia.
Ree is saved by the vestiges of old times that faintly resurrect themselves. Although a group of women savagely beat her for asking too many questions, they finally come to her aid. The uncle who treats her so cruelly in an early scene finally rises to the call of family. Played by John Hawkes, in a role that reminds me of Levon Helm as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coalminer’s Daughter, Teardrop is as much a victim as his niece.
Winter’s Bone is a film noir, though its ending is not as grim and hopeless as it might have been. One is aware of the possibility, even the likelihood, that Ree may succumb to the meth culture like many others around her. She resists that danger in the film, saving the farm and her family. Her long-term prospects remain unclear.
The most gruesome scene comes when a group of women take Ree to a pond. She is told to reach into the water, pull up her father’s corpse, and hold his arms while one of the women cuts his hands off with a chain saw. The severed hands provide Ree with proof that her father is dead and that he did not jump bail. They enable her to save the farm.