Winter’s Bone sort of works on the level of a standard mystery story, but doesn’t live up to its own semi-docudrama ambitions leaving it, ultimately, a failure. It’s straight-jacketed by a highly structured plot precluding any of the spontaneity of a more naturalistic structure that we might expect from an independent darling of the Sundance Film Festival. Characters show up to do what the story needs them to do without any room for unstructured moments that might stray from the demanding and rigid plot. Director Debra Granik (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini) does a strong job with the formulaic mystery story, but the characters aren’t fully developed and the entire rural backdrop torn apart by the meth epidemic feels exploited rather than considered with any depth.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old struggling to hold together her family in the Ozark region of Missouri. Her mother is ill, unable (or unwilling) to talk or do much of anything else, and her father is nowhere to be found, lost in the world of meth. She stands in as the surrogate matriarch for her younger brother and sister, stepping in to teach them the necessities of survival. The scenes where Ree instructs her siblings on the basics of hunting or cooking are some of the best of the movie, but they come and go so fast that we don’t have time to savor them. I was especially taken by the scene where Ree is teaching them how to shoot, but it peters out because Granik rushes back to the tiresome plot.
It isn’t enough to explore the complexities of rural life marred by methamphetamines in modern America. Early in the film the local sheriff visits the house and he tells Ree that her father’s court date is in a week and she needs to be sure he shows up. Her father put up their house for the bail and if he fails to appear they will lose it. Ree sets out to find him, but meets resistance from family and assorted meth addicts and dealers along the way. Despite dead ends and threats, Ree continues her search, determined to save her family’s home and keep her siblings together.
I grew increasing frustrated as one person after another warned her away from her pursuit, telling her some people don’t want to be found or her father has to make the choice to turn himself in. Even after she tells them why she needs to find him they still refuse to help her. I didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing for her to try to save her family home. (I kept waiting for Ree to ask people flat out why they won’t help, but she inexplicably never does.) By the time the big mystery is revealed at the end I almost threw up my hands. That was the big secret? It wouldn’t have taken much for any one of the people she approached to help her. In fact, after all the threats and the beating she endures, some of them actually end up doing just that, leading her to her father. It isn’t really clear why they couldn’t have helped her 45 minutes to an hour earlier.
Meth is a major problem in the United States and rural communities are particularly affected by it. Granik could have made a thoughtful film about meth tearing apart families and communities, much like the HBO miniseries The Corner did for crack in the inner-cities. Instead she uses the subject as a convenient backdrop for a standard Hollywood story.
The characters are surprisingly shallow as well, because they exist solely to propel the plot forward. One exception is Ree’s Uncle Teardrop, memorably brought to life by John Hawkes. In early scenes Teardrop is unpredictable and threatening, but as we come to understand him he grows on us, though we never fully accept him. Despite the distance we feel from him we recognize that he is more conflicted about his brother’s disappearance than we were lead to believe early in the picture. Hawkes delivers a convincing performance, unpredictably wavering between threatening and comforting.
I also liked how Ree is written with intelligence, a quality female roles often lack even today. Every chore is an opportunity to teach her siblings something and she goes about it with such patience and cleverness that those scenes (as I wrote above) are a joy to watch. And her determination to find her father doesn’t cloud her natural intelligence. Late in the film after she is beaten by a large group because she refuses to stop looking (and why would she quit if her family will end up homeless?) one of her attackers asks what they are going to do with her. She calmly wipes the blood from her mouth and says, “Kill me, I guess.” Writing the scene with her cowering and crying would have been the easy way to go, but Granik and Rosellini were smart enough to keep Ree tough and not intimidated.
Other than Teardrop and Ree the others in the movie are mostly caricatures of rural life, revealing nothing more about small town residents or their lives that I couldn’t have imagined on my own. I didn’t learn one thing about what life in the Ozarks is like beyond the movie’s stand that everyone is a rotten meth-head or meth dealer looking out for themselves. Where is the depth or the insight for which so many filmgoers flock to independent moviemaking? It is absent here, as though the entire script were written from the confines of LA or New York without even a visit to the area or interaction with people the movie portrays. The dirty little secret of independent movie fetishists is that most independent movies are just as empty-headed as big Hollywood pictures. Like Winter’s Bone, they simply plug characters absent from Hollywood productions into standard screenwriting school scripts. Granik missed a real opportunity here to say something meaningful about the scourge of drugs on rural America. Instead the themes worked in service of the plot rather than the other way around.