Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

Flirting with heroic individualism, this story insists instead on age-old community bonds that everyone else seems to have written off

Cold Comfort Backwoods. Film review – Tom Jennings
Seventeen year-old Ree Dolly looks after her young brother and sister deep in the Missouri Ozarks, with mother physically present but completely cranked-out and father absent on business – first cooking crystal meth, now apparently having skipped bail. Their tumbledown woodland plot is surety, so destitute family breakdown looms unless he’s found. Worse, in grim midwinter with no income, training her siblings to hunt and gather assumes premature urgency – after all, “Never ask for what should be offered”; neither from your own nor certainly the government. So, between keeping home fires burning, Ree walks the hardscrabble hills visiting in vain forbidding neighbours – mostly kin – who know more than they’re saying. Threatening hostility escalates inexorably into grievous bodily harm and horror, but persistence – and, eventually, reluctant support from unpredictably feral uncle Teardrop – infinitessimally softens the code of silence sufficiently for her to prove her dad’s fate and save the day.
Retaining the narrative trajectory of Daniel Woodrell’s magnificent 2006 novel, the film sadly sacrifices its gripping Gothic ambience. Combining fierce love for his people with elegaic mournfulness at their downward spiral in the contemporary drugs economy, Woodrell’s dense, hypnotic prose paralleled the implacable physicality of a freezing season with a community caught at the end of its tether – its integrity fatally degenerating after three centuries of stubbornness battling both the elements and alien impositions of mainstream American values. But Debra Granik substitutes anaemic, decidedly unmagical, social realism for this timeless, mythic resonance – diluting force and impact at every turn. Watery sunshine replaces mortal blizzards, yielding a merely slightly discomfiting cold snap (true, low budget production might otherwise face impossible technical challenges), and the Dolly youngsters seem correspondingly generally hale and hearty – more mildly bothered by temporary misfortune than teetering farther over the precarious precipice even than previous generations.
Shifts in script emphasis conpound cinematic anaesthesia, distancing us further from wrenching visceral engagement. For example, dialogic authenticity is faithfully reproduced but its expression in musical culture gratuitously stressed – a folkloric exoticism countering Ree’s immediate preoccupations with unnecessary voyeuristic detail, undercutting empathetic immediacy with an anthropological sentimentality that the source scrupulously avoided. Or, her vague childhood fantasies of escaping dead-end deprivation into the military translate into impulsive last-ditch self-commodification – gently rebuffed, moreover, by a sympathetic army recruiter disproving her innate awareness of institutional enmity. Thankfully, though, helped by Jennifer Lawrence’s unpretentious central performance, its cumulative travesties don’t entirely suffocate Winter’s Bone’s insistence on the Ozarks denizens’ inherent potential – even in the most unpromising internal and external circumstances still depending on intelligent refusal of colonial authority. Similarly, complicating classical patterns of female power and male dominance, the women dish out blows as harsh as their men yet harbour the greatest promise of pragmatic redemption while repudiating primitive accumulation from their precious environment. As a bonus, through close participation with locals (many in minor roles), historic media caricatures – from Beverley Hillbillies and Deliverance to countless cult grotesqueries of inbred cretinism – are decisively laid to rest.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 20, October 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Nov 3 2010 13:49


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