In Winter’s Bone, her astonishing new film, director Debra Granik frequently frames her protagonist, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), via the ultra-confining square of car windows. She’s traveling; she’s going somewhere. But she’s also unable to get anywhere at all. She’s moving, but she’s stuck.
A few of the more dismissive reviews of Winter’s Bone have said the film is nothing more than poverty porn, a way for the sorts of audiences who frequently attend American indie films to feel good about themselves, both for their standard of living and for even going to see a movie where the protagonist lives in such extreme poverty in the first place. This might be accurate if Ree seemed at all concerned by her situation in the film. Instead, she spends most of its running time struggling to preserve the status quo, simply to get back to the misery she starts the film in.
Granik is not asking us to root for Ree to escape the hell she’s in; she (and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini, from the wonderful novel by Daniel Woodrell) simply wants us to acknowledge that there are people in the world for whom this is something to be used to. The film, wonderfully entertaining and twisted through with genre beats galore, is simply asking us to acquaint ourselves with the notion that there are people like this who may have some sense of another world they might belong to, but little to no idea of how they might join it. (In one fantastic late scene, Ree tries to join the Army, and the film subverts every expectation we have of what might happen in such a scene.) None of this would work without a story to hang onto, and Woodrell’s novel makes for a corker. Ree’s father has skipped bail, and if he doesn’t show at his next court date, she, her two siblings and her mentally ill mother will lose the house that’s the only thing standing between them and living in a cave (literally). Ree, determined not to let this happen, embarks on a quest that is one part Homer’s Odyssey and one part Chinatown, a quest that will take her into a rural underworld where no one is terribly thrilled to be having a girl this young poking at quite so many hornets’ nests.
But the film is also oddly affectionate for these people and this culture. A lengthy section set at a birthday party takes its time luxuriating in some wonderful bluegrass music and the pleasure of a warm fire and good company. Granik and company never condescend to these people, all while simultaneously understanding that this is not a world that’s ideal for a bright girl like Ree, who seems destined to spend her life falling through one crack after another.
In a way, the rural noir surface and the poverty-laden subtext constantly oppose each other. The ghosts of long-forgotten buildings that Ree must trek past on her voyage are haunting reminders of how lost this section of the Missouri Ozarks is in terms of economics, but they’re also spookhouses that could feature men lunging out of the dark at her. This underlying tension – between story and “message,” as it were – keeps the film from falling into the pitfalls of other American indie films set in similar circumstances, meaning things are always moving, always expanding. By the end of the film, when Ree embarks quite literally onto the River Styx in search of answers, the film’s universe feels so huge it’s a wonder she can simply put on her shoes and walk across it.
The film only works because of a crackerjack cast of both great character actors and extras Granik found on location (the Army sergeant Ree speaks to is playing himself). Garret Dillahunt is great fun in a small part as an ineffectual sheriff, while Dale Dickey seems determined to toss traditional rural gender politics on their ear as the main antagonist’s wife. The film, however, belongs to Lawrence and John Hawkes as her uncle, Teardrop. Lawrence is an amazing discovery (this from a director who put Vera Farmiga on the map), able to play something very like desperate optimism. She knows she’ll find her dad because she knows what happens if she doesn’t will be even worse. And Hawkes enlivens the film every time he comes around, as a man who longs to stay out of it, even though his own brother may be at the mercy of very bad men indeed, until he is able to step back no longer.
Winter’s Bone isn’t perfect. The effort to explain just why these woods are so important to Ree and her family might have been better handled, and there are notes in the final scene that ring a bit false. But, for the most part, the film is a travelogue of things we’d rather not see, rather not think about, that makes them the only things in the world we can look at. It creates a whole forgotten world in its runtime, one where any of the characters could handily carry a movie of their own, and it leaves just enough mystery for us to ponder on the way out of the theater. It’s the kind of story where those who are lost can only be found by others who have gone missing.