Into the woods
The literal meaning of the title of director Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel) doesn’t come out until late, when the coldly observed story takes a grisly turn on a dark and tree-snarled pond. But its figurative meaning is clear from the start, as its adolescent heroine, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), embarks on a frustrating quest for her missing father, Jessup. The coming winter chills Ree to the bone, and so does the reaction she meets from her insular neighbors in the Ozark foothills of southern Missouri.
Ree doesn’t think of herself as any particular heroine; she’s just a kid taking on a responsibility that others have let slide. Her father, Jessup, has become well-known for his ability at cooking crystal meth—too well-known, which is why he’s missing now, on the run from the law and the bail bondsman. Ree’s mother has retreated into some kind of psychotic withdrawal, sitting and staring into space as Ree carefully washes and combs her hair. It falls to Ree to look after the needs of her younger brother and sister, her mother and herself, scrabbling for food for the table and begging hay from a compassionate neighbor for their underfed horse.
Now, something else has fallen to Ree. Jessup put up his family’s house and measly, infertile farm as bail security, then just disappeared. Nobody this side of the sheriff seems to care where he is, and if he doesn’t show for his court date in a week, Ree, her mother and her brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), will be turned out to starve or freeze to death.
Ree has no choice but to find her father and convince him to turn himself in. But everywhere she turns, she hits a hard, cold wall of indifference and hostility. It begins with a friend, whose husband refuses to let the two women use his pickup to go looking for Jessup. Then Ree’s uncle, Jessup’s brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), tries to warn her off, saying that poking around where she isn’t wanted is “a good way to end up eaten by hogs. Or worse.”
Things get even uglier when Ree trudges into the midst of the tight-knit, stone-faced Milton clan, the drug-dealing family with whom Jessup had been working before getting busted. With flinty eyes and hard, grim faces, the Milton women order Ree to get on home and mind her own business. Ree’s dilemma, and she doesn’t welcome it, is that this is her business; she has no choice but to risk the wrath of this implacable backwoods code of silence.
Ree learns that the family farm, though it was all Jessup had, wasn’t enough to meet his bail, and that some unidentified man had walked in and plunked down the cash to get Jessup out of jail. Who was that, and why did he do it? Was it to help Jessup go on the lam, or to get him out where his former cohorts could kill him? Grimly, reluctantly, Ree finds her mission subtly changing from finding her father to somehow proving that he’s dead so that she can avoid having the family’s property default to the bail bondsman.
Winter’s Bone begins, in a way, as a missing-person story, then morphs into a murder mystery, but Debra Granik doesn’t concern herself much with the rules of genre. They don’t seem to interest her, and they may not have interested author Woodrell, either; instead, the stark, forbidding, emotionally barren and pitiless atmosphere of the story takes precedence, and gets most of Granik’s attention. More, certainly, than narrative pace and clarity. Much of the dialogue is delivered in a tight-lipped hillbilly mumble, and names of characters aren’t always clear, so it’s not easy to give due credit for some of the excellent performances. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes are certainly fine, especially as a sympathy and unexpected connection develops between Ree and Teardrop. But so are others—the woman who plays the craggy, cold-eyed Milton matriarch, for instance—who are less easy to mention by name.
Winter’s Bone offers a slow but fascinating twist on the familiar story of someone forced to draw on an inner strength they hardly knew they had. It’s a case of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”—only in this case, the “man” is a gritty and determined 17-year-old girl.