Set deep in the bone-chilling Ozark woods, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone rides high on the national spectre of repossession and will make Jennifer Lawrence a star.
My Kingdom For A Corpse by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
It’s rare for a film to arrive in our cinemas that feels uniquely and peculiarly American. And yet Debra Granik’s film is neither focussed on social mores like Todd Solondz or modern American mythmaking à la Gus Van Sant. Instead, Winter’s Bone is bewitchingly American in atmosphere and texture, more reliant on horror flick sensibilities than the States’ usual indie relationship tussles. It’s a desolate, and seemingly unadulterated wilderness of upturned bathtubs, burnt-out trucks and trussed-up skinned game where a backwater community of outlaws scratch a living in the Ozark mountains, tongue-tied and blood-tied. But when home-sweet-home is threatened with repossession, one girl is forced on a quest to bring back her father’s bones.
Based on the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is centred round the very real and very American fear of eviction, following the recent wave of Main Street repossessions and post-Katrina devastation. His country noiris also structured around a very American narrative arc of debasement and deliverance; Ree forced to endure all manner of harrowing hardship before finally emerging victorious, like a redneck Carrie unburying herself from a tomb of familial filth. And not much really changes between the beginning and the end – she’s regained her house and has some bail money to boot. Only she’s not the same girl any more.
Ree Dolly is 17, the eldest daughter in charge of a sick mother, absent father and two helpless pre-teen siblings. (A single teenage mother without the slasher-movie ‘sin’.) Times are hard and keeping the family afloat is tough. So the last thing she needs is for the town’s sheriff to turn up, telling her that her crystal-meth making pop has skipped bail, leaving her ramshackle home under threat of repossession. Desperate to save it, Ree decides to bring her father back, venturing for the first time beyond the safety of her wood cabin into a close-knit criminal racket governed by violence and silence. She pleads with her uncle Teardrop and her lawless cousins for information, but in so doing breaks the outlaw code and opens up a most grisly can of worms.
As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence really shines, all outback drawl and fearless vulnerability. And the heroine’s tough, a “bred and buttered” Dolly, a determined final girl, who seems to have genre-sidestepped from horror into a real man’s world. Scalded and beaten round the face by her haggard cousin Merab, and threatened with the wrath of arch-evil kingpin Thump Milton, it starts to feel dangerously close to Tobe Hooper territory, the camera caressing the workshop’s rusting implements in close-up. Her less than friendly kinfolk are all American Gothic Wyrd Sisters, and there’s more than a Texas Chainsaw Massacre frisson when the garage doors wind ominously down on Ree’s as yet unknown, but inevitably bloody fate. But thanks to Teardrop’s intervention, Ree’s allowed to head home, with just a swollen cheek and a bloody eye. And finally, the violence breaks back through the celluloid sheen, crystallising in the real for just a second.
The women stick together. Gruff neighbour Sonya agrees to feed Ree’s hungry nag and keeps the family alive a little bit longer with some left-over deer meat. And Ree’s feckless friend Gail finally comes up trumps with her husband’s truck, but God knows what male prohibition she’s broken to get it. It’s a man’s world and the women navigate this black sea of volatile male authority under the constant threat of violence. In a moment of empathy, Merab beseeches Ree, “Isn’t there a man that can do this for you?” And when Ree finally comes face to face with the man with all the answers, the Kurtz of the Ozarks, Thump Milton, he hardly knows what to do with this girl. It’s an old-fashioned gallantry demanding female submission. And just as Teardrop has to take responsibility for his wayward, trouble-stirring niece in order to save her sorry ass, Ree has to learn to adhere to the rules of the game.
Nevertheless, women are the backbone of the action and the heart of the community. While the men are sniffing crank, Ree’s teaching her young charges an early lesson in survival; how to shoot squirrel and skin them. And it’s an important lesson in getting your hands dirty too, plucking out rodent gizzards, as these women have to do a lot of bad, bad things to survive, both the main perpetrators of violence and conspiratorial confederates. Despite lamping her round the face with a mug, it’s Merab who, finally taking pity on Ree, takes her to the murky pool that conceals her daddy’s bones. And between the two of them they hack off his hands with a chainsaw. It’s bone-chippingly gruesome, but enough to ensure the survival of her little family.
With proof of death, a veil of secrecy again benights the creepy hollow. But American values have been defended -the home is safe and an estranged family has been brought back together. Sundance darling since her debut film Down To The Bone, Debra Granik again pushes motherhood off-kilter. But as with all good horror flicks, in Winter’s Bone the focus is on redemption. Ree’s dreams of escape to the Army have evaporated into a contented shouldering of her burden; “I wouldn’t feel right without the weight of you on my back.” And things are looking up. With Teardrop’s chicks to nurture, and the moonshine racket’s bail money to hand, the future looks bright. Well, less hopeless anyway. Only one man heads off to certain death. Doomed for being a man, for stepping up and for knowing too much.
Winter’s Bone is released in the UK on 17th September 2010