There are moments in the harshly beautiful Winter’s Bone in which the characters are so deeply, unfathomably mean in response to a 17-year-old girl’s pleas to find her father (or at least his body) that we search their faces for a glimmer of sympathy, kinship—anything human. Some filmmakers (say, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier) would settle for their masks of indifference or malevolence, because that would clinch the case, Q.E.D., that these clannish Ozark hill folk were born to, or just worn down to, pure evil. And the heroine, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), would seem like Little Red Riding Hood discovering that Grandma is in league with the wolf, and give us reason to root for her to make the bad guys pay. But Ree won’t stop trying to appeal to something decent in her people, many of whose last names are also “Dolly,” who maybe know what happened to her dad and have buried that knowledge in ground already overfilled with skeletons. This director, Debra Granik, doesn’t let the actors go dead: There is movement, barely perceptible, under the surface. Some vein of compassion, however thin, must be down there. Somewhere.
Granik and Anne Rosellini based their screenplay very closely on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, who lives in the Ozarks and should be better known. What people say about Cormac McCarthy (“expands the territory of American fiction!” etc.) goes double for him. Possibly more. At this point, McCarthy has virtually given up hope (he had little to begin with) for a decency unmoored from people’s instinct for survival. Woodrell’s prose, stark as it is, carries traces of Mark Twain’s sly wit and wonder. In the Welsh author John Williams’s Back to the Badlands (in which he hits the road to visit the real-life settings of contemporary crime writers’ work), Woodrell drives through a town called Collinsville, “a place you’d be hard pressed to find on any map.” Later he says, “These are people so alienated from American culture that it’s like a parallel universe.” Even Woodrell keeps his distance from the scariest and most shrouded of them, and so would Ree Dolly if she weren’t compelled by the threat of homelessness to journey into the woods and up those barren hills in search of answers.
From the opening shots of Winter’s Bone—vivacious children on a trampoline in a landscape denuded of life, while a woman sings (unaccompanied) an Ozark lullaby—Granik creates a lyrical tension between determination and despair. When a cop drives up to say that Ree’s father, arrested for cooking crystal meth, has apparently jumped bail, and that he used the family’s house for collateral, Ree says she’ll find him; and when the policeman says that’s unlikely, she responds, “I said, I will find him.” Her mother is mentally ill and near catatonic, and Ree takes care of her young brother and sister. They’re barely surviving, even if they manage to keep the house. (While she guts a squirrel, her brother asks if they’ll eat the intestines. “Not yet.”) After telling her siblings never to beg, never to ask for what ought to be given, she sets out to ask for what ought to be given, and is willing to beg if she has to. And she has to, in every charged encounter, beginning with her best friend (Lauren Sweetser) and then her father’s brother, Teardrop (the febrile John Hawkes), who tells her if she goes much further she’s liable to get “et by hogs or wishing you were.” Warned off, shunned, beaten, Ree keeps mustering the will to get back on her feet.
Watching the hauntingly self-contained Jennifer Lawrence, my eyes sometimes strayed to the way she fingered her simple woolen cap, careful not to let it fall—a poor thing, but her own. (I felt as if I could smell the cold in it.) Lawrence and Granik don’t overplay the pathos. They don’t look for moments to show Ree’s vulnerability—because Ree can’t afford to show her vulnerability, even to herself, any more than she can drop that woolen cap. (Bloodied and barely conscious, she tells her friend to make sure her siblings do their homework.) Only once does she go soft, when she sits beside her mother: “Mom, look at me. Can you please help me? This one time? Please help me this one time. I don’t know what to do … ” But even as these words pour out of her, you can see in her eyes that she doesn’t expect an answer.
Despite winning the big prize at Sundance, Winter’s Bone isn’t what we used to call indie “deadbeat regionalism”: Beneath its hardscrabble plainness is an odyssey, mythic in its intensity, that builds to a climax not with bad men but the aging and haggard women who keep this underworld kingdom impregnable. The leader, the wife of Thump Milton, is Merab, and as she’s played by Dale Dickey it’s impossible to take her full measure. Motherliness and murderousness have somehow melted together; you can’t spot the line between free will and loyalty to her (male-driven) clan. I think you could watch this remarkable performance a hundred times and never get to the bottom of it. Her final scene with Ree, a midnight boat ride into the marshes, is what bad dreams are made of; the silent scream to which it builds can be felt in your bones—the purest catharsis imaginable.