“Winter’s Bone,” set in a bleakly impoverished Ozark community, conveys the raw resilience of a rural family. The film was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the latest iteration of the Sundance Film Festival.
A character study, “Winter’s Bone” centers on 17-year old Ree Dolly, who is left to care for her two much younger siblings. Her mother is incapacitated—whether because of sloth or mental dysfunction is not clear (the sense is that she can talk, but won’t). As such, Ree is a feministic standout, filling the rough maternal role that literally keeps the rest of her family alive. In one scene, she shows her siblings how to skin a squirrel that she has recently rifled. In another, she reads stories to them.
The film’s running plot hinges on her meth-making father who has, by the time we enter these characters’ lives, been missing for some time. He is presumably a dead victim of the drug-ridden community’s criminal activity. Even so, there is a warrant out for his arrest, and the house was posted as his bail. As this is literally the family’s last remaining asset, Ree sets out to find her father, dead or alive.
In order to do so, she must interact with other dangerous members of the community who may know of his whereabouts. Adding to the seemingly hopeless task is her social imposition as a woman. This area is brutally patriarchal: the male characters in the film are abusive and inaccessible (Ree has to go through the wives much of the time). Since Ree has almost nothing to offer the also-poor neighbors and drug lords that she gets involved with, she must be boldly demanding—a behavior that gets her disfigured and bloodied at least a couple of times.
This leads me to a major credit of the film in the way of its makeup, costume design and set. All of them combine to make a film that not only looks harsh, but one that feels so because its characters are visibly affected—whether by weather, fist, or hunger. Furthermore, I can’t imagine a more accurate visual rendering of below-poverty rural America.
Director Debra Granik is continuing a tradition of recent, high achieving female directors (following Sophia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” and Kathryn Bigelow of last year’s “The Hurt Locker”). Yet, she deserves to be noticed here not only because of her work (which should get an Oscar nomination), but also because her film is a brilliant testament to the feminine spirit.
“Winter’s Bone” did not get a very wide theatrical release, but hopefully it will find a broad audience now that it is available on DVD. Viewers will find a powerful, timely drama here about the human spirit, familial allegiance, and self-sacrifice.