“Winter’s Bone” A brave detective story with a tough, teen girl lead


“Winter’s Bone” is the refreshing story of a tough 17-year-old broad in the Ozarks, Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  I could describe her in more polite or delicate language, but I doubt that she would.  Her story amounts to an odyssey as she locks horns with her rural, often criminal neighbors and family.  Her dad, Jessup, put their house up as collateral for his bond when he was put in jail on drug charges for making meth.  With his court date imminent and himself missing, Ree, hearty and hardened beyond her years, is saddled with fixing this.

Ree runs

Her mom can’t; she’s ill, seems catatonic.  Her brother and sister are too young.  In pleading for her neighbors’ cooperation, even empathy, she says, “they’re too young to even feed themselves yet.”  You might call this film is a petty detective story is worth your time is because of Ree’s fight against the dire consequences for the family.  This young broad’s story exemplifies a relentless love and commitment to her family, her siblings.

“Winter’s Bone” had its premiere, at least its Minnesotan one, on June 2nd at the Walker Art Center, where director Debra Granik introduced it and answered questions afterward.

Ree has to track down and deliver her father, even if it’s just evidence of his death, in order to keep her home.  She doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but those are the least of her concerns.  She must feel like Harry Truman, a 20-century Missourian.  After President Roosevelt died he said, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”  So, she’s willing to be denied, lied to, yelled at, bullied, and gang-beaten.  She won’t take “no.”  As long as her brother, sister, and mother are at-risk.

Location and culture as character:

Neither Ree, nor her family of sometime foes, are the only memorable characters.  South Missouri and its poor, and often criminal subculture, are characters as much as “Winter’s Bone’s” characters are.  The traditions dictate how people live their lives and treat one another.

In the introductory scenes, Granik, uses the sparse, poor kitchen where Ree prepares the breakfast to illustrate their poverty.  The local morning radio show plays in the background.  It plainly announces the community’s goings-on.  This illustrates the work-a-day attitude of the area where the criminals and innocents alike make their ways.  Soon enough we see the trailers and the shanty-like structures that the residents claim.

Ree comforts her brother while she has so little to spare

This ambiance reminds me of rural Nebraska, where a 1990s independent film,”Boys Don’t Cry,” takes place.  So few TV or film stories, or at least good ones, about poor, rural peoples’ lives have been done; it’s very hard to spotlight useful comparisons. That’s why this film is refreshing and thankfully it’s potent story and well-developed characters make it stand out.

During the Walker Art Center’s Q&A, Ms. Granik said that “there are enough ‘ands'” that none of the details or characters should come off as stereotypes or digs at Hillbilly’s.  By “ands” she describes social and moral contradictions; those people who are both tender and brutal, or aloof or cooperative, depending on the circumstance, or just how far down the wrong road their passions or uninterest have careened.

“Winter’s Bone” is memorable, maybe indelible.  But there’s a caveat: The most memorable scenes are also the hardest to take.  This is a world where the women’s strength must never rival a man’s.  Her neighbors and family would just as soon punish her, in a way straight out of a Yakuza movie, if she won’t take their gruff, plain-spoken, yet subtle hints to back off.  This is a world where contemporary gender equality is a foreign concept.

Ms. Granik describes the story and source of “Winter’s Bone” on the Sundance Film Festival’s “Meet the Artist”

Early on, when she presses her uncle, Teardrop, to stop being cryptic, but be straight with her, he grabs her up by her throat, as he might to discipline a hound, to deliver his insistent point.  Basically: “Shut up and suck it up!”  He sets the community’s tone and attitude toward her straights.   Finally after an elder’s convinced that she’s pushed too far, his wife – who had already abundantly established that neither of them is to be troubled – leads a small gang of women to beat Teardrop’s point home to her – barbarically.  It’s bloody.

And Ree pushes on.  Warily.

The film’s only flaw is a dream montage that stands out so much from the whole story’s style that it distracts you.  It’s very brief.  But I don’t know why it was there either.

It comes out in wide release on June 11 and an even wider on June 26, depending on where you are.

Why bother?

  • We have a strong, perseverant female lead character
  • It’s a refreshing, but simple, even innovative, detective story
  • The narrative and characters are thoroughly developed, as  adapted from the novel
  • We are introduced to, or reminded of, a very different way of life, in South Missouri



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