The country. For a townie, is there anyplace scarier than the country? Bad things happen in the country. If the movies have taught us nothing else it’s that the country is a dangerous place. Haven’t you ever seen Straw Dogs? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Calvaire? Emmerdale? You don’t want to go camping there (Eden Lake) and you definitely don’t want to go whitewater rafting (Deliverance). Unless you actually want to be bummed by a bunch of hicks who kinda look like the Kings of Leon. I’m pretty sure there’s at least two episodes a year of Escape to the Country that the Beeb can’t air because the participants have been raped, murdered and eaten (and not necessarily in that order) by the local torch-wielding inbreds of Norfolk or Gloucestershire. No-one in their right mind should ever willingly choose to go to the country. But some people don’t get the choice. They’re born there. Just like Ree Jolly, the indomitable teenage heroine of Winter’s Bone.
Set in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, Winter’s Bone is a tense, hard-bitten slice of country-noir. 17-year old Ree Jolly (young Renee Zellwegger-alike Jennifer Lawrence) ekes out a bleak existence. Tough, smart and self-reliant, in any other film Ree would be giggling over boys and choosing a prom dress. Here she’s the de-facto head of the household, caring for her young sister and brother not to mention her mentally fragile mother. Everyday is a struggle for survival as Ree battles to keep her family together. Things aren’t helped when the local sheriff comes calling with some bad news. Ree’s no-good, drug-dealing dad has used the family farm as collateral for the bail he’s promptly skipped out on, disappearing into the hardscrabble environment of crumbling shacks, junked cars and mobile homes that form their world. If he doesn’t show for court in a week, the family will be made homeless.
Ree finds herself faced with a stark choice; track down her errant father or watch her life disintegrate. Ree’s response: “I’ll find him,” each word spat out like a bullet. So off she stomps on her own personal odyssey, determined to find her absent parent and asking the sort of questions that are “are a real good way to get et’ by hogs.” As it becomes increasingly obvious that her father has fallen foul of some nasty business associates (all of whom he’s related to. Well, it is redneck country) Ree’s quest may just lead her to a shallow grave of her own.
With the best bluegrass soundtrack this side of O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? and based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is a spare, lyrical film, an unflinching portrait of rural poverty in America and a damn good thriller. Debra Granik’s direction is as terse and economical as her characters, creating a vision of backwoods America that’s both beautiful and terrifying. The film is suffused with menace, an atmosphere of mounting dread, and it’s to Granik’s credit that she doesn’t demonise the mountain culture. Sure, most of the antagonists Ree finds herself up against are toothless, drug-addled hicks but Granik has the courage to humanise them. The society she paints is harsh, unforgiving, but so is the world it exists in. Lip service is paid to family bonds and codes of morality but dark secrets rule the insular community and people will kill to keep them. For all her courage, tenacity and determination, her grit, Ree is out of her depth and she knows it.
While it may be her extended clan of drug-dealers and smalltime crooks who threaten Ree, it’s their women who are truly terrifying. Led by a ferocious Dale Dickey (who memorably played Patty the crank whore on My Name Is Earl), the women of Winter’s Bone are vengeful harpies, the steel in their menfolks code of silence, meting out their own brutal punishments to inquisitive interlopers. Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence’s steely performance as Ree is phenomenal, finding just the right mix of toughness and vulnerability that makes you ache for her as she is battered, beaten and stares down death in her quest to find her missing father. She’s ably supported by the terrifying John Hawkes as her violent, ambiguous uncle Teardrop and a cast of character actors which features the faded beauty of David Lynch alumnus, Sheryl Lee. Tense, violent and poetic, featuring the sort of strong female characters I’d love to see left alone in a room for five minutes with the fag hags of Sex and the Shitty, Winter’s Bone is a slow-burning thriller about life on the margins.
Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser, Sheryl Lee
Debra Ganik & Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell