Winter’s Bone Review by guest Susan Spivey

24 Feb

If there’s an upside to the Academy’s new policy of nominating ten films for Best Picture every year instead of five, it’s that you’re now slightly more likely to get to see movies like Winter’s Bone. The least known of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Winter’s Bone has gotten unanimous praise from critics and film festival judges but only grossed about $6 million in the 39 U.S. movie theaters that had the privilege of showing it. If you’re not lucky enough to live in a city with a movie scene*, there’s a good chance you hadn’t heard of this film until the nominations were announced in January. I’m sure it has no chance of actually winning–the Oscar will always end up going to a movie that’s more accessible, in both senses of the word, than this one–but the increased fame that inevitably goes with being nominated might just mean that you’re able to find Winter’s Bone at your local Redbox.


Whither you should go, right this minute, just to check. Because you really, really need to see this movie. If you have a picky date/roommate/spouse constraining your indie-movie-watching choices, tell them you heard Winter’s Bone is an action-packed thriller about a kickass teenage girl who goes on a quest to take revenge on her meth-dealing deadbeat dad. If they get mad afterward, you can always do penance by taking them to see The Green Hornet. You won’t regret it.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s enough plot in this story that a director with a more conventional vision than Debra Granik’s could easily have turned it into a thriller. The basic outline is downright Homeric. Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the sole adult in her family line to escape falling prey to meth addiction or insanity, suddenly finds the fate of her younger siblings and disabled mother on her shoulders when she learns that her father Jessup has signed over their house and timberlands for his bail and disappeared. She has about a week, by the bounty hunter’s estimate, to find her father and drag him to court, or her family will be homeless. Lacking a car and, apparently, a phone, she must scour the Ozark woods alone and on foot, avoiding threats from “The Law” on one side and Jessup’s sinister connections in the meth business on the other.

But Granik somehow draws these classic elements together in a way that offers no predictable triumphs or quick satisfactions. Though there are many tense, well-played scenes, the overall effect is more disturbing than suspenseful. The pacing seems off, somehow.  Events that seem to be building up directly to a high-adrenaline climax are followed by long moments of quiet inertia. And in those moments, we seem to be watching a different movie entirely–a domestic drama, or a sociological study of communities in poverty, or an elegy for rural Americana. There are babies. There are old ladies with mournful singing voices. There are banjos.

There are frustrations, for those of us reared on Spielberg and Tarantino. To name just one example: when Ree teaches her brother and sister how to shoot a shotgun, we are all waiting for the scene where they take a last stand to defend the home front, or where we learn that Ree is the best shot in all of Arkansas, or something like that. Instead, they use the weapon in a later scene to shoot some squirrels for supper. No dramatic gesture is wasted, but lots of things don’t happen how we really want them to.

Except for Ree, her siblings, and their fat benevolent neighbor who drops by at desperate moments with gifts of venison or Vicodin, every character in Winter’s Bone remains unreadable and untrustworthy. The hillbilly incest stereotype is only minimally exploited, but we get a vague queasy feeling that everyone of interest in the movie is part of one big dysfunctional family. This is made especially clear by the apparent right of anyone with more power to discipline anyone with less power in the community: for example, Ree’s uncle Teardrop grabs and chokes her exactly like an abusive father when she challenges his unwillingness to search for Jessup. Specific relationships aren’t often clearly delineated, and there’s a dense web of grudges and obligations that we only see bits of. The constant awareness that Ree is walking through a familial minefield keeps the suspense level high even when you can’t tell what genre the movie is going for**.

Ree is no Buffy Summers or Beatrix Kiddo or even Marge Gunderson. She never finds the mystical strength within her that empowers her to defeat all monsters, and we never see her midriff. Still, I’m willing to bet that by the end of the movie you’ll wish you had someone like her as a protector–which is pretty much all I look for in a cinematic hero. The role is bravely inhabited by the 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, whose Best Actress nomination is as deserved and as hopeless*** as the movie’s nod for Best Picture. She strides through a harsh visual landscape that is obsessively detailed but never distracts from the drama, and she’s supported by a gritty cast whose performances will make you wonder how on earth they found so many accomplished actors among Ozark meth addicts.

Describing the task of portraying meth and its effect on families and communities, Debra Granik said, “There is basically not one bit of solace in that whole depiction of actual reality of it.” Whether she’s right, I’ll leave for you to decide.

*I had the worst of both worlds on this one–I got to see the previews for WB again and again last year as a Landmark junkie in Seattle, but by the time the movie was released, I had moved to Baltimore. These days, if I want to see a movie that doesn’t suck, I have to spend 30 minutes in traffic and 20 minutes circling the blocks around the Charles Theatre to look for street parking before paying $10 for a ticket, all while freezing my ass off. The quality of my entertainment choices has suffered a precipitous decline.

**David Denby, reviewing the movie for the New Yorker, apparently coined the term “country-noir,” which I think is pretty fitting.

***This pisses me off. I loved Black Swan as much as anyone, but Jennifer Lawrence kept me glued to my seat and didn’t keep the same wilting-flower expression on her face for the entire movie. Plus she didn’t make a romcom with Ashton Kutcher last year. Just sayin’.

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3 Responses to “Winter’s Bone Review by guest Susan Spivey”

  1. Susan February 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    Correction: John Hawkes plays Ree’s uncle, not her father.

    • CintusSuprimus February 25, 2011 at 7:04 am #

      My bad! Corrected.

  2. Loren February 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    Great Movie!! I was raised in the Missouri Ozarks area where the film was set and filmed. This is the part of the US that loves Sara Palin, Rush Limbaugh (who is from Missouri) and voted for GW Bush twice. I have to say that the film was amazingly “true to life” in every detail. I would also like to say that you don’t have to be desperately hungry to hunt and eat squirrels either. It is considered very good food in the hills. I have eaten it many times and it is delicious when cooked correctly.

    I have been dismayed reading many of these reviews calling it a “fake” and/or “phony” and contrived film. I do understand that the character of Ree Dolly certainly has many wonderful and admirable qualities that seem to have developed in a vacuum. Ree Dolly needs to be that sort of character for the rest of the film to work and not simply be a documentary of the endless poverty endured in the Ozarks for generation after generation. I grew up EXACTLY in that part of Missouri and Ree’s character aside, it is EXACTLY correct in the look, the language and the behaviors there.

    I would also like to address the meth epidemic that has raced across huge sections of the rural Midwest America. I was raised in the Ozarks from 1963 until 2009 and I watched the moonshiners lose out as Sunday Blue Laws and Dry County Laws were voted down or abandoned. Then marijuana became THE big cash crop that survived and thrived for many years until “Daddy” Bush’s anti-marihuana laws poured in tons of money to local law enforcement and new laws confiscating lands forced the richer growers indoors. It was finally in the mid 1990s when you began to see meth force out ALL the remaining marihuana farmers and moonshiners. Counties began to get in meth dealing Sheriffs and the old games were OVER. In my Ozark County (Morgan) during the late 1990s a deputy sheriff’s home mysteriously exploded and then was investigated by the FBI. I watched as the marijuana became hard to find and evil meth take over.

    The people of the Ozarks have always been clannish, hostile to outsiders and proudfully ignorant and primitive in their opinions of society and politics. Those traits are nothing new or something that manifested due to meth. But the introduction of meth has struck down many good men and women who might have made the culture a tiny bit more tolerant or hopeful.

    But along with the continuing devastation of multi generational poverty and vastly inferior schools there is also a great beauty in the land and the people of the region that you can see in a short movie shot in the Ozarks at;

    or my longer version at:

    Many an unbelievably gifted musician lived and died in those hills never having recognition from anyone outside of the hills.

    I strongly urge everyone to watch this movie because it is VERY
    truthful and realistic of how parts of the US survive. It also shows a part of America that is VERY often overlooked because many are (rightfully) ashamed that this sort of 3rd world poverty exits in the US. I personally feel that the Federal US government needs to inject a LOT more funding and OVERSITE of the rural school districts in order to overcome the generations of prideful ignorance that governs the mindset of many born into that rural America culture.

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