I tend to think of the culture of the American Southeast existing on a fluid polarity between Colonel Sanders and Fred Durst. Well, it’s fluid in at least one direction: some antebellum gentility can be shown to have blind idiotic rage lurking underneath its surface. There’s not really anything genteel about the rest.
Winter’s Bone (2010) takes place in an unspecified part of the Ozarks, a poor hill-country region spanning southern Missouri and northern Arkansas which no doubt goes to church but seems forgotten by God anyway. One wouldn’t know God was around given the people and events encountered by Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in this film, a 17 year-old surrogate parent-cum-gumshoe who must seek out her breaking bad dad or lose the property she lives on with her siblings and helpless mother. She has to wade through the undesirables of the “community” in order to ferret out information, knowingly placing herself in harm’s way for the sake of her family. These are some right nasty hillbillies, and their intransigent wickedness has even the law on edge.
The film is a formal successor to Brick, which transplanted the speech patterns and plot of 1940’s noir film to a contemporary high school, and the spiritual successor to No Country for Old Men, which channeled the hard-bitten culture and landscape of its setting into laconic fodder for its crime-and-consequences myth-making. Winter’s Bone, however, has a fiercely independent character to it even beyond these films in its refusal to stylize its subject material. At first I was reluctant to rate the film so highly, then I realized my only qualm was the emotional distance that aesthetic formalism could have provided. The film is in your face, putting you right alongside the strong-willed but always vulnerable Ree. There’s nothing pretty to gaze at here, no Burton-esque gothic cuteness or mesmerizing imagery to gussy up the content. I can almost hear the film saying: “World’s ugly, yall.”
Whereas as a film watcher I usually favor and am entranced by the clean lines and compositions of film imagery–whether a carefully-controlled mood palette such as in Brick or sharply-realized moments like a pointed flash of lightning on the horizon during one of No Country‘s chases–this film is ugly and is almost aesthetically dull. It doesn’t have the faux-graininess (or narrative pretension) of “found footage” films, but the film almost feels like cameras were simply set up in these rusted-out locales and left to capture what happened. It is a hard-boiled detective story of the ethnographic variety, with no artistic formalisms to distance us from the subject material.
It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is in every scene I can recall, was chosen to star in The Hunger Games after headlining this film. Her Ree is tough, vulnerable, smart, and tender towards her siblings–almost as if the role was written with Katniss Everdeen in mind. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, her quest to find her father (ever the elusive embodiment of a secret, a la Harry Lime or Terry Lennox)* puts her in conflict with a number of people who know something but don’t want to tell anything, a menagerie of surly hill people suggesting at times a broke, illiterate and toothless counterpart to the Corleones. She’s wandering her own smoky Chinatown, Los Angeles seedy types replaced with Durst-ian hayseeds.
You may have guessed at the overall bleakness of the film and, while I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, I do want to say that this is not a nihilistic film which cosmically whimpers into the darkness like No Country or wallows in existential horror like Chinatown. The journey, nee the location, is the destination here, with plenty horrors along the way to chill the bones.
*These are characters from The Third Man and The Long Goodbye, respectively, whose disappearances drive much of the conflict and action for their films’ mystery-unraveling protagonists.