Winter’s Bone – 2010
First and foremost, this is a depressing film. Even though our heroine gets the money she needs to feed her family, it is won after a difficult and depressing journey. And the resolution was not the fruit of her own personal triumphs, but the kindness of one of her enemies. And what made the film so depressing? Extreme poverty is never a light-hearted subject.
Jennifer Lawrence played seventeen year old Ree Dolly, a poor girl living in the Ozarks. Her dead-beat father, Jessup, works in a meth lab, and is never home. Her mother is practically catatonic and never speaks or works. So she is forced to drop out of high-school to take care of her younger siblings, Sonny and Ashley, played by Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson. The family is so poor they have to hunt squirrels or rely on donations from kindly friends like Gail, played by Lauren Sweetser, or helpful neighbors like Sonya, played by Shelly Waggner, for food.
And if all that weren’t depressing enough, the main conflict of the plot is that Jessup, who is out on bail after being arrested for making “crank” has disappeared. In order to make bail, he put up his house as part of the bond. So if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will lose their home. So Ree goes on a quest to find her missing father, dead or alive.
But when she starts asking questions and getting closer to the criminals he worked with, she starts having to deal with some pretty dangerous and shady people. The big crime boss, Thump Milton, played by Ronnie Hall, and his meth addicted family try to convince Ree that Jessup died in a meth lab fire. The scary old lady who seems to be Thump’s woman, Merab, played by Dale Dickey, seems to be sympathetic to Ree’s dire straits, and yet callously warns her to stop asking questions.
When Ree refuses to give up her search for her father, Merab and the other Milton women beat the crap out of her. Fortunately, she is saved by an unlikely ally, Jessup’s older brother Teardrop, played by John Hawkes. Teardrop is also a meth addict but he comes to Ree’s rescue after she is beaten. He also tries to help her find Jessup, even going so far as to take an axe to the windshield of one of Thump’s men in retaliation for Ree’s beating.
But the situation is resolved in a pretty horrifying way. From out of the blue, Merab shows up on Ree’s porch and offers to take her to her father’s body. They drive to a swamp where Jessup is rotting under some tree roots. So that his death can be confirmed, Ree has to reach into the water and hold the corpse’s hands up while Merab cuts them off with a chain saw. Ree takes the severed hands to the police and tells them that someone threw the hands on her porch. A few days later, the cash portion of the bond, which was paid by an anonymous donor, is given to Ree.
Happy ending? Well, no, I didn’t think so. Jessup is still dead. Mom is still sick. Ree still has to take care of her brother and sister instead of having a life of her own. But I guess it is supposed to be a hopeful ending because now they have a bunch of cash. Ree promises Sonny and Ashley that she will never leave them. I’ll stay here and live in poverty with you. Depressing!
But I think that is the feel director Debra Granik was going for, and it made sense for the setting of the story. The lighting for the film was all dark and dim, lending a general feeling of hopelessness to the story. The filming locations were always filthy dirty with trash everywhere, both indoors and out. Ree, Sonny, and Ashley’s costumes looked unwashed and grimy, though she is often shown hanging clean laundry out to dry.
But all that being said, Jennifer Lawrence did a good job as the movie’s driving force. She proved herself to be an actress of skill and depth. I also have to give special props to Hawkes and Dickey, both of whom played their parts with a certain amount of gravitas. The movie really had no real failings. It seemed to know exactly what it wanted to achieve and did a great job getting it.
There were two interesting little facts I found about the film in my research. First, the whole nighttime scene on the pond where Ree gets her father’s hands was actually filmed using a technique called day for night in which the scene is filmed during the day but severely underexposed to make it appear as if it were in the dark of night. The second is the character of Sattersfield, the bondsman, played by Tate Taylor, a man who also happened to be the director of the 2011 Best Picture nominee, The Help. Who knew?