Winter’s Bone is a 2010 dramatic film and a literary adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name with a script and direction by relative newcomer Debra Granik (Down to the Bone 2004). Granik won a series of awards at Sundance with her early work and followed that with the Prix du jury at the Deauville American Film Festival in 2010 for this her second feature, Winter’s Bone. Her focus here is on a strong-willed female character wrapped too tightly for her environment, a girl not so much aged into womanhood as thrust there by the often brutal circumstances of a patriarchal world. This is a story that begins from within, close to the bone, from actions born of personal challenges and failures, from the desperate desire of average people for some kind of meaningful happiness. The catalyst for change comes soon enough, a sudden and irrevocable break in the cadence of order that sets in motion a series of events that can’t be undone and leaves the viewer with a shocking ending that comes with an awfully steep price tag.
Winter’s Bone is an internalized and stylistic exercise in minimalism, a sparse and intimate character-fueled examination of the best and the worst people can do to and for one another without the least amount of consideration for the lasting and permanent collateral emotional consequences. This film is daring and personal, one that wields silhouette and sparsity like every frame is a painting with the purpose of celebration and condemnation. These are the exclusive and secretive Ozark woods which serves both the community whereby the characters exist but also as a character in and of itself that informs, often quietly on the malaise of a people rooted in tradition and unspoken ritual. These people aren’t living so much as existing and if one weren’t careful you might think this a story from some other era, from some forlorn and backwoods settlement where law and order are just words people use like knives and forks to get through the gristle and bone of fresh kill.
The story is familiar enough to follow without much preparation or needless setup. The setting and characters are also familiar, friends and family, people in passing in our busy lives that remind us in seconds at a time that we are both the same and different and as a result live similarly while suffering privately. Winter’s Bone is about the singular and the specific and as such reminds of the power and significance of place, time, and setting. The main figure, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a loner who seems out-of-place though equally adept at assimilating and compromise. She wears the look of endless labor and an uncertain future as easily as worn boots or a dilapidated jacket hardly warm enough for winter. She is immediately forced on a journey of discovery that is as much about her own personal awakening as it is the outward solution of her immediate problems. Ree, burdened by poverty and the care of her young siblings, is forced to confront a distant, secretive family who seem to stand in the way of tracking down her absent father who has skipped bail and named her house as collateral to which she stands to lose if he doesn’t appear for court. Faced with indifferent and unapproachable relatives who abide by a code of silence that dates back indefinitely, Ree encounters one series of lies and mis-directs after another as she comes dangerously close to the truth about the whereabouts of her father.
Where Winter’s Bone meanders, sluggishly is in the details of every breath and painful look, in the plodding of Ree Dolly as she staggers through snow and lies and eventually is forced to choose between knowing the truth and giving up everything she and her family has built. It is uncertain what the actual consequences of losing everything would have on young Ree and her family aside from the obvious but this little known element is held in question and dangled from time to time as a reminder if not the sole motivation of her pursuit of her father. It is unclear whether she would be looking for him at all if not for the threat of losing her home. What she inevitably finds is neither a solution or aptly welcome but by the time she reaches this point in her journey she is prepared, hardened to the inevitability of what she must do, what she must continue to do which is to take care of her kin in ways she may have never been taken care of by hers.
There have been countless reviews of this film, calling it the years best and one of the top contenders for awards season. I think a lot of people are uncertain what to make of the film, part art-house character study part low-budget indie darling, films like Winter’s Bone are frequently elevated even against better judgement. It is not that is it a bad film or even an unsuccessful character study of profound personal explorations and individual accomplishments that serve as the sort of life experiments that inform a persons being for the rest of their life. The true beauty of Winter’s Bone is that it does not ever lose sight of the story it wants to tell or foolishly populates the vacuous, snowy countryside with superfluous characters and scenarios that don’t meaningfully add to the central character’s personal journey. In this singular vision lies the most important and refreshing narrative, a way to encourage both engagement from and understanding by the audience who is able to relate with Ree’s scenario without ever having had to experience the feeling of loss, detachment, and disappointment.
Winter’s Bone reminds one of films like Frozen River (Melissa Leo) and Maria Full of Grace (Catalina Sandino Moreno), like Julia (with the ever certain Tilda Swinton) and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker that swept the awards season like a wildfire. The most revealing thing about this film remains in the silence and the care taken to allow the world of the story to become a narrator of sharp and indistinct details, of fractured images and cold, dark timber framing a girl’s pursuit of womanhood against all the damn things that oppose her and in that knowing she finds it possible to take pause and live by it.