“I live in the Ozarks… every scene looked like it was being filmed from my backyard.” So says one poster on IMDb, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I may not live in the Ozarks, but I do live in the Deep South, barely 10 miles from terrain that looks eerily like the locales that dominate Winter’s Bone. The location sweats out every pore of the frame, forming a vast and ominous character that’s more majestically dominating than anything, much less anyone, in the film. Director Deborah Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough have certainly captured the frostbitten austerity of winter, but they’ve also found beautifully bleak images in the disintegrating landscapes, like a hillbilly version of the Vienna ruins of The Third Man.
The minimalistic story involves a 17-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s struggling to take care of her younger brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), and catatonic mother, Connie (Valarie Richards), by living off the barren and unforgiving land. One day, she’s informed by the Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) that her father, Jessup, has skipped bail and gone missing. He’s put up their house as collateral and if he doesn’t make his court date, Ree and her family could lose everything. What ensues is Ree’s attempt at contacting everyone in town who’s related and who might know anything about her father’s whereabouts. There’s only one problem—the family is full of methamphetamine addicts and dealers who seem to have a dark past with her father, and are gravely intent on keeping their secrets.
Nearly the entire first third consists of little more than Ree walking from place to place asking about her father, with each stop being more foreboding than the last. There’s a dramatic inertia in these scenes, which don’t so much hint at progression as repetition. It’s not surprising that the true strength of the film doesn’t rely on the forward thrust of its narrative, but on the tone created by the atmosphere and mystery, and even those walking scenes are pregnant with a sinister undertone. Indeed, the elongated scenes of Ree walking through landscapes in wide shots are more reminiscent of a southern version of Terence Malick than the mystery noir it’s being billed as. Or maybe it conjures up a sense of William Faulkner without the Gothic grandeur.
But it actually feels closer to the mythic minimalism of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, which couldn’t be further away from Winter’s Bone geographically, or closer spiritually. Like that film, Winter’s Bone capitalizes on the dilapidation of its locales and the rich, allusive history behind them, evoking a mythological antiquity. Indeed, the Jungian/Campbellian Odyssey link nearly writes itself. Each house that Ree visits is guarded by a kind of gatekeeper, always the females, protecting the potential answer to the mysteries within. Each location gets more frightening; the first is rather benign, but the second finds Ree meeting her uncle, Teardrop (an inscrutable John Hawkes who earns his Oscar nom in a magnificently ambiguous role), who violently lashes out when she pleads with him to help her, even though he relents and later becomes her guardian angel. She doesn’t get past the threshold of the third, where’s she’s stopped by the ferocious Merab (Dale Dickey).
If the plot outline doesn’t speak to the mythology enough, even the names carry with them a larger-than-life weight. Teardrop, Little Arthur, Merab, Thump Milton, Blond Milton… the faces are equally striking, and the film is populated with mugs unique enough to carry a silent film, or to be featured in any Sergio Leone super close-up. Michael McDonough mentions in the commentary that he used a slight, digital edge sharpener to make the eyes pop during these stare downs, and it works to chilling perfection. In Merab’s first confrontation with Ree, she flashes her a look that would turn Medusa to stone. Thump Milton has an authoritative face that would make Zeus jealous, while Teardrop’s has more of a world weariness written in his crevice lined forehead and sunken cheeks. But even he has an unexpected strength during the tension-filled confrontation between himself and the sheriff, which actually does call to mind the epic western stand-offs of Leone.
Luckily, Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree is more than capable in her Odysseus role with a natural strength that manifests from her reserved thoughtfulness. She isn’t your typical hero, but she’s more than capable of slaying the Cyclops when necessary. In one scene, Blond Milton takes her in his pickup to show her a blown out meth lab (a real one; as director Granik said, such finds are essential for small budgeted films), claiming that it was the last place anybody saw her father. She tentatively looks inside, scanning the blackened remains. When they arrive back at her place, Blond offers to take Sonny off her hands to raise him. Ree stomps away in furious indignation, before turning back and snapping with: “God damn you. You must think I’m a stupid idiot. There’s weeds growing chin high in that place. It must have been a year since that place blew,” before spitting on the ground in front of him and righteously walking away—you go girl!
However, the very factor that inspired me to view it metaphorically was how dull it seemed when viewed as a straightforward drama. It’s at its best when Granik and McDonough choose to hang back and view things from more of a distance, but the film’s second third forsakes most of the majestic landscapes of the first third for predominant close-ups and mid-shots that try to wring drama and emotion out of the dry slab of earthen Ozark clay that is the narrative. They try to use stark, understated realism to generate tension and visceral impact, but it’s only sporadically successful. The scene where Ree is taken prisoner and brutally beaten feels forced and contrived, as do most of the scenes where Ree is trying to connect to her siblings or mother. But even the former has the awesome garage/barn, whose opening/closing door evokes a mouth-like gateway to some evil castle dungeon.
The film’s most dramatically potent moment comes with the hellish midnight trip across the Styx-like pond with Merab acting as a Virgil for Ree on a quest to retrieve a body from the underworld. I won’t give it away, but less just say it involves a squeamish, squirm-in-your-seat moment with a chainsaw. Even the “gift” that Ree receives because of that trip is a classic symbol of the monomyth, less important in what exactly it is than what it allows for. Elsewhere, the pervasive varieties of animals equally seem to carry mythological connotations. The mangy dogs seem correlative to the heroes, while the ravens in Ree’s painkiller-induced fever dream sit lurking like harbingers of death on the treetops while the squirrels suffer the loss of their forest. A cattle auction vividly creates the background for a confounding chase where Ree tries to track down Thump Milton (with some striking photography using blown-out highlights). Ree gives up a horse, and feeds a donkey, but I don’t have any fancy interpretative fanwank to what they mean.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is that, with all this evocation, the film hints at more than what’s really there, and as fun as it is to interpret this mythological significance into it, I can’t wholeheartedly claim it earns it. It’s analogous to the mystery at the heart of the narrative, which certainly implies a history between and behind its characters that runs like a bloodline as deep and long as the roots of the trees that proliferate the forests in the film, but like those winter struck trees, I feel there’s a desolate emptiness to it all. But it should be lauded for its impeccable sense of place. Even the down-home country music, which includes a Bacchanalian “picking session”, and nuanced sound design, which calls to mind Robert Bresson, with its creaking screen doors, crunching dirt ground, clanging wind chimes, etc., is a testament to a location as distinct as the mythic figures that inhabit it.