erik lundegaard


Winter’s Bone (2010)


“Winter’s Bone,” written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik, and directed by Granik, from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, opens to an acapella version of “Missouri Waltz,” the state song of Missouri, where the film is set, and its spareness suits the environment. The trees are bare, the grass scabby, the sky overcast. The sun never shines and the rain never comes. Everything feels dead. There’s music in this place but this is a place without music.

The scary underside of the American dream that’s usually displayed on film is black inner-city life. Woodrell’s Missouri Ozarks is the negative version. Not black but white. Not inner-city but rural. Families rather than gangs. Meth rather than crack. At the center, though, the same: tough, scary people with their codes of silence.

The movie opens on what seems like an untenable existence. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl taking care of her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), in a scabby house near some scabby woods. It’s all tied-up dogs and beat-up couches and flannel shirts and plastic cups—the refuse of the local Goodwill. It’s children caring for children. The mother lost it a while back and the father, Jessup, well, he ain’t around no more, but Ree does what she does. She wants to go into the Army but she’s got her responsibilities and she takes them seriously. On the way to school with the kids: Spell “house.” What’s 7+2? She washes and combs her mother’s hair, cooks potatoes in bacon fat, and teaches the kids the lessons that the Ozarks taught her: “Never ask for what oughta be offered.”

One day this untenable existence becomes a whole lot less tenable. The local sheriff pulls up looking for Ree’s father. He’s out on bail, but disappeared, and he put up the house as part of his bond. If he fails to show for his court date next week the bondsman will claim it. In a flash you see Ree’s toughness.

Ree: I’ll find him.
Sheriff: Girl, I been looking.
Ree: I’ll find him.

Her search is our introduction to this world. It’s not pretty.

First she goes to her friend Gail’s house, in a kind of exurbia, and asks to borrow the truck so she can do her search. Gail (Lauren Sweetser) is a new wife, new mom, and she asks her husband, who’s listening to some roaringly angry rock music. He says no. Ree can’t believe that her friend, whom she thought tough, would back down so quickly. “It’s different once you’re married,” Gail says. Indeed. This husband, in fact, turns out one of the better ones.

Subsequent visits are similar: once-handsome, now-haggard women greet her suspiciously, guarding the inner sanctums of their mostly silent men. First it’s Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz) keeping folks away from Teardrop (John Hawkes), Jessup’s brother, who eventually emerges from his back bedroom, and who deals with his niece’s questions by choking her for 10 seconds. Then there’s Megan (Casey MacLaren), who doesn’t know Ree, and who guards the junkyard fiefdom of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), Jessup’s meth-head friend. Finally, it’s Merab (Dale Dickey), the matriarch of the Miltons, with whom the Dollys have apparently feuded, and whose patriarch, Thump (Ronnie Hall), she doesn’t even get in to see. Her descent into increasingly unfriendly territory is revealed in each woman’s greeting:

Victoria: “What brings you here? Is somebody dead?”
Megan: “What’s your business?”
Merab: “I expect you got the wrong place.”

This is a harsh, unsympathetic world and the solutions people offer are half solutions or no solutions. Her neighbors say they’ll take Sonny but not Ashlee. Teardrop suggests she sells the woods before the land is taken. The Army won’t allow her to join and take care of the kids.

Meanwhile, Ree keeps teaching her brother and sister. Here’s how you make deer-meat stew. Here’s how you shoot a rifle. Here’s how you pull squirrel apart to get at the meat. It’s Rural 101.

But news about Jessup? Silence.

Eventually she tracks down Thump Milton at a livestock auction and pursues him back to the Milton place, where Merab greets her with a glass of water in the face and a punch in the stomach. She’s then dragged to the barn and beaten—by the Milton women. Thump stands over her and tells her to explain herself. One senses it’s a life-and-death matter. Explanations are defiantly given and stoically accepted. This is a land whose very culture of silence fosters misunderstanding, but before anything else can happen, Teardrop shows up to barter for her. “She does wrong you put it on me,” he says. “She’s now yours to answer for,” Thump responds. It’s as if we’re watching a foreign culture. We are, but it’s Missouri.

There’s a great moment, by the way, inside the barn when we first hear Teardrop’s truck pull up. The Milton men, who are many, flutter away from the door like birds. “Shit,” one says. Another says, “I ain’t gonna stand her naked with that motherfucker coming.” Teardrop is the guy who choked Ree earlier but he’s a slight man, so we don’t quite know what the deal is until he gets involved in the search. One scene in particular. He rousts Ree from bed, saying, “I’m tired of waiting for shit to calm down. Let’s poke ‘em and see what happens.” They visit a cemetery. No luck. Then the local sheriff pulls them over. He approaches the car and tells Teardrop to get out. He says, “I know you, I know your family.” He says, “It’s about your brother.” Teardrop doesn’t move. He just stares into the driver’s side mirror with the scariest, deadest eyes. Is there talk for John Hawkes for best supporting actor? I know Jennifer Lawrence’s name has been bandied about all year but haven’t heard thing-one about Hawkes. He deserves the talk and probably the nom. This scene alone. I don’t know how you get your eyes to look like that. In the end the sheriff backs down because he could see—and we could see—Teardrop wouldn’t.

By this point Ree knows her father is dead (“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered, and that’s how I know,” she says), and even more so when she discovers her father, one of the many meth addicts in the Ozarks, turned snitch. He talked in a land where you don’t. But Ree’s talk in the Miltons’ barn—why she wants to know what happened to her father—along with Teardrop poking ‘em, finally breaks the Miltons’ silence. In the middle of the night the Milton women take Ree for a car ride, then on a rowboat ride out into the middle of a lake/swamp, and Merab nods downward. Ree reaches into the frigid waters and feels her father’s cold dead hands. In the audience I thought: “And? She promised not to tell anyone where the body is, and she certainly can’t pull it up, so what evidence is she going to bring back to the sheriff?” Which is when the chainsaw comes out. Yikes. Ree can’t do it, so Merab, rolling her eyes, chainsaws one of the hands loose and Ree, sobbing, lets go of the other. Which brings up this sad, sad line. “Why’d you let go?” Merab chastises. “You need both hands. You know that old trick.” That old trick: Sawing off one hand so the cops think you’re dead. This is a harsh fucking world.

“Winter’s Bone” tells a good story but it’s so grim, so unrelentingly gray and cold, that I can’t say I enjoyed myself much watching it. At the same time it’s expertly done. It tells of a foreign culture in the middle of the United States. It gives us a strong, upright, central character, who, at the end, is merely back in the middle of her untenable existence, stronger for the journey. That’s the happy end: the grim beginning. It’s the man with no shoes who almost lost his feet so now he’s happy he merely has no shoes. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” Ree tells her siblings at the end, and it’s probably true. Everyone strays in this movie but she never veers from the path.

—September 11, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard