Directed by Debra Granik and based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone inspires terms often too eagerly used by reviewers, like ‘grim’, ‘bleak’ and ‘at times lyrical’, because in this case they are inescapably apt. Set in what may be the last frontier landscape of the United States, the Missouri Ozarks, Winter’s Bone is a stylistically and thematically complex film cloaked beneath a simple goal-oriented story: seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must find her missing drug-dealer father to prevent bond authorities from taking her family’s house and land.
From the moment the film begins, the silence and seclusion of the landscape itself seems to threaten, as the ‘Technology Age’ has evidently sidestepped this part of the world. There are no mobile phones or computers, and people eat what they have killed themselves. While the Ozarks appears utterly divorced from the outside, we gradually learn through Ree’s quest to locate her father that this fiercely insular community is inextricably connected to the wider world.
Whereas modern technology is almost nowhere to be seen here, the contemporary drug market is thriving: everyone in this extended clan is precariously linked in some way to the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamines. In this rural environment, ‘cooking meth’ and defending its continued production have usurped farming as the dominant means of income and socialisation. And as part of the Dolly family, whose lineage encompasses the bulk of this community, Ree knows exactly how high the stakes are when she begins asking questions about her father’s whereabouts.
Winter’s Bone has been described as a ‘rural noir’ and in purely narrative and thematic terms, this is quite correct. There is something of the maze-like noir narrative to Winter’s Bone, which might leave some viewers unsure about whether they have missed pieces of the story’s puzzle when the credits begin to roll. It is by no means as circuitous as The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel that film was based on, was not even sure himself exactly how the plotlines all fit together in the end), but it does demand that you pay attention and not be fooled by its deceptively simple lines of flight.
Winter’s Bone transforms the dapper and hyper-masculine detectives synonymous with 40s noir in the figure of the young and indomitable Ree. In true noir fashion, she is determined to uncover the truth of her father’s disappearance and as the story unfolds from her perspective, we know only as much as she does. Like a classic noir ‘Private Dick’, Ree prods and probes for information, revealing in the process the full extent of the duplicitous and paranoid universe she inhabits.
Ree’s motivations are linked to her familial role as nurturer and tough-love teacher to her two young siblings: she is searching for answers ultimately in a bid to protect them. As Ree reminds us time and again their mother is ‘sick’ and, in every aspect save physically, entirely absent. Indeed, Ree seems fearfully aware that their family might be separated and thus is constantly teaching her beloved siblings how to survive. From making stew to using rifles and gutting squirrels, she tutors them in the quotidian necessities of their frontier existence.
It cannot be overstated how intrinsic Lawrence’s performance is to the success of Winter’s Bone – particularly as the film moves quite slowly, its pace following the temporality implied by the rural setting itself. At times we are simply following her objectively from one location to another, or as she works around the home. In these mundane moments she subtly conveys an essential and controlled urgency that is mesmerising to behold. Lawrence’s compelling performance emphatically draws the audience towards the character of Ree, who is undoubtedly the dynamic engine of this story.
What Winter’s Bone communicates most effectively, making it feel like a noir, is a sense of foreboding: a palpable tension pulling ever tighter around Ree and her immediate clan. This simmering anxiety is heightened by Dickon Hinchliffe’s minimal soundscape, in which violins strain beneath the action and, at times, anticipate eruptions of hostility. Indeed, violence seems to threaten Ree from all sides, and with the women of this world just as formidable as their menfolk, Winter’s Bone makes no concessions to reductive Hollywood-style gender roles. In Ree, Winter’s Bone has unleashed a female character of rare and robust substance.
Kate Harper studied cinema at The University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.