Somewhere in the Ozarks, though it could be any number of places cradled beyond the fringes of modern prosperity, we can no doubt find communities just like this, where men are either absent or to be found cooking up drugs, driving trucks, or just getting wasted and mean and violent, while tough women do the grunt work, finding something to eat, holding down the fort—perhaps literally—and just generally negotiating for their family’s survival. Sometimes music is played on fiddles and guitars, and when this happens it’s just about the only time we see men and women enjoying each other’s company in Winter’s Bone, though surely there are other unseen interactions, love-making at least, that would explain how these people keep going, how one generation follows another.
Debra Granik and her co-scenarist Anne Roselini’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel embraces both the harsh beauty of its setting and the utter bleakness of its portrait of life among these rural poor, their abandoned cars, muddy clothes, and burnt-down meth labs, their lack of work and surplus of weight. Unlike Ang Lee’s 1999 adaptation of Woodrell’s Ride With the Devil, it’s a fairly humourless movie, though I think its tone is imposed less by Granik’s striving for seriousness than by the needs of story and genre. This is a thriller driven by desperation. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is only 17, but she alone is responsible for raising her much younger siblings. Her mother’s incapacitated and her father who knows where, maybe dead. She needs to find out, because he’s apparently skipped bail and the family’s property could be taken away. Ree spends the movie going from one unfriendly door to another in search of someone, anyone, who can help, even her extended family, not necessarily an advisable resource in this place where blood ties can lead to bloody conflicts and certain households maintain a mafia-like grip on the meager local economy. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” Ree instructs her little brother, which is another way of saying steer clear of anything that feels like less than straight-ahead generosity.
Yet, while there are definitely times in Winter’s Bone when the menace feels overcooked, generosity is not alien to this place or to this story. Though Ree gets threatened, beat-up, and abandoned, she also has a neighbour that lends her feed for her horse; a friend saddled with a small child and a dink for a husband who nonetheless gives her a ride when she needs it; an uncle’s girlfriend who gives her a joint to chill out after a terrifying encounter in the uncle’s kitchen; she meets one of her dad’s girlfriends, played by Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee, who tries to give her a useful lead on dad’s whereabouts (so that’s what would have become of Laura Palmer had she lived); she’s saved from possible death by that same very scary aforementioned uncle (John Hawkes, a near ghost of a man); she’s given some good advice from a US military recruiter who can see that she, like so many in her part of the country, is considering the army just for the money.
Ree’s already proven her resilience before the story even begins by caring her family and home and teaching the kids to fend for themselves, even to hunt and skin squirrels if occasion calls. “Do we eat those parts?” her little brother asks, looking at the squishy, steaming guts. “Not yet,” Ree answers flatly. Ree will prove her fortitude again and again, discovering inner resources she probably didn’t even know she had along the way, and Lawrence gives a tremendous performance, one that feels like pure adrenaline with no time to waste on ingratiating winks. But the story rewards Ree’s almost mythical testing of will, not with anything like a fantasy happy ending but with the simple reassurance that when things go from bad to worse, with a little bit of luck, someone will be there who gives a shit, and will extend any free hand they can.