Winter’s Bone: flimsy plot backgrounded by real poverty and catastrophic social problems

Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Meet Ree Dolly: she’s a 17-year-old girl caring for her severely depressed mom and two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, on their farm located somewhere in the Ozarks region in the southeast United States. Dad hasn’t been seen for some time and is due to appear in court on charges of illegally making methamphetamine in a backyard lab. One day the sheriff pays a visit and warns Ree that if her father doesn’t appear in court, the family property which also includes a timber-cutting business will be repossessed as Dad had put it up as part of his bail conditions. This forces Ree to set off on an arduous search for her missing father, one that forces her to beg favours of members of her extended family and to navigate and test the limits of her impoverished community’s mores and codes of honour. We discover that nearly everyone is either unemployed or, like Dad, is engaged in cooking and trafficking in methamphetamines, and the whole community has always been suspicious of the police for reasons unexplained but which must go back a long way in the area’s history. This complicates Ree’s task as we learn that people also consider her father a snitch for talking to police and therefore deserves whatever happened to him.

Flimsy plot and crime-noir conventions aside, the film is memorable for the strong performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes and its portrayal of a clannish society wracked by extreme long-term poverty and the associated problems: drug abuse, low school retention rates, teenage pregnancy, violence, distrust of police. Lawrence virtually becomes Ree with minimal or subtle acting; hard to believe she’s never been to drama school. But that may be a plus since drama school might teach students certain methods or techniques that would be out of place in a film like this where a “non-acting” acting style is called for. Contradictions in Ree’s character become credible: she has courage, she is forthright, she is smart and keeps her family together yet she’s suspicious of police and won’t ask them for help, and is sufficiently naive enough to want to enlist in the US army just to get the cash to pay her dad’s bail. Hawkes as meth addict Teardrop also reveals unexpected aspects: initially unpleasant, unpredictable, unhinged and unhelpful, he proves a loyal ally to Rees and gradually assumes a stand-offish role as guardian to her family.

The Ozark mountain community seems familiar and yet unfamiliar in surprising ways: with the men hooked on meth and with little else to do apart from cooking illegal batches of the stuff, the women preoccupied with keeping their families and networks together and policing invisible boundaries between themselves and the men, they’re like what I imagine Mafia family networks or impoverished Australian indigenous desert communities to be. The men do their thing or waste their lives on alcohol, drugs or being sick, the women do all they can to keep family and clan networks intact and functioning, both sexes keep to their specific domains with the women deferring to men in making decisions and outsiders, especially representatives of the law, are regarded with suspicion. It would be easy to caricature and criticise these insular, suspicious mountain people but Granik portrays them in all their contrariness and their culture, where it seems everyone can do almost anything with instinctive ease (chop wood, hunt and skin animals, play a musical instrument, work a farm, cook crank), with sympathy and humanity.

The aspect of this community I was unfamiliar with is the methamphetamine epidemic: before seeing this film, I was simply unaware that crank use was so widespread in the US rural Southeast; in 2003, state police in Indiana alone found 1,260 small-scale lab facilities making meth, up from 6 in 1995 (source: Wikipedia). I had imagined alcohol and narcotics abuse, dealing in illegal weapons and people joining militias and white-power groups would be the main headaches for police. The dangers of making meth, easy enough but requiring the use of toxic, inflammable chemicals in extracting and purifying it, are made all too obvious in “Winter’s Bone”: early on, Ree is called on to inspect the charred remains of a shed that housed a lab where a batch went wrong; dialogue in the scene initially suggests her father was a victim in the accident. The whole area around the shed is poisoned and the community can’t afford to clean up the land and water supply. But while it’s arguable that the environmental damage of the meth epidemic should be the community’s immediate worry, there are other more sinister forces capitalising on the people’s helplessness: the US government, capitalising on the meth addiction to increase its police-state control of the people, and on the area’s poverty to drive young kids like Ree into the US army to fight never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely rates as the major threat to the Ozark mountain people’s survival and integrity.

Ree does become older and wiser but her future remains uncertain; the only thing she knows that ensures she still gets out of bed in the morning and away from crank abuse herself is her family’s dependence on her, as she acknowledges to Sonny and Ashlee: “… I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”. It’s a heartwarming statement that confirms the power of family ties but given Ree’s context, very depressing as well.