it isn’t about toughness
LIFE in the Ozark can be tough, and for some it can be tougher; but for seventeen year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) it isn’t about toughness. It’s about survival, a survival that necessitates not only mothering a mother who stares beyond depression into a world of tomorrows but also surrogating her two younger siblings while her methamphetamine cooking father Jessup has disappeared into the criminal Ozark hinterland.
Forced to rely on the charity of neighbours, who donate the odd cut of freshly shot deer, Ree is left with few choices but to initiate her siblings into the ways of the woods. She teaches them the finer elements of squirrel shooting, skinning and stewing that will just keep them going when combined with the softened, fried potatoes and vegetables gathered in. At times Debra Granik’s, winner of Sundance’s 2004s best dramatic director, representation of siblings can be saccharine as it embraces character over plot, but this is no Laura Ingalls Little House on the Prairie homage as Ree struggles with rural poverty while the family lurches inexorably into a hungry winter.
As the snows gather local sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) visits the ramshackle family home, but the Sheriff’s not there to check on the children or drop off a cake but to explain that Jessup has put the family home up as a bail bond. With Jessup missing, and unlikely to make his court date, Ree and her charges face the very real prospect of being evicted into the Missouri backwoods.
There’s not a social worker in sight, as Ree traverses the back woods and mountains of the Ozark region in a desperate search for her father Jessup, and if the gods and the extended clan consent allow her to at least bury him in the best traditions of the Odyssey and Faulkner’s, As you lay dying. Winter’s Bone optimizes not only the fear but also the grotesque of Southern Gothic as the journey to find her father places her in conflict with those who wish for him to remain missing.
lest the meth cooking pot spilleth over
With every desperate inquiry, with every heavy door knocked and with every half truth she alienates, and ultimately pits herself against such memorable named characters as Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) and Thump (Ronnie Hall). But this is no journey punctuated by the jollity of absurdly monickered criminality appearing from the bleak cinematic landscape. This is not a landscape populated by Dickensian caricatures emerging from misty Kentish marshes; this is a landscape where there is no great expectation lest the meth cooking pot spilleth over.
Even the sisterhood of flannel shirt wearing, hog-tying rough and tough, rope ‘em women finally lose patience and show Ree the consequences of not listening to advice from your kin and clan elders. The Ozark clans seem to inhabit a world forgotten, or conveniently ignored much like the inhabitants of John Sayle’s West Virginia mining tale, Matewan. This is an equally tough world that strangely resonates, far removed from the more usual American landscapes but intrinsically believable. It’s not only a place where the underclass don’t have NHS dentists but also a place beneath the radar of Mike Leigh et al. It’s a world with real consequences, a world that doesn’t provide incapacity benefit or NHS direct when it all goes wrong. In this hopeless, 21st century America the army with its bounty is seen as a way out even when the inevitability and casual violence of Ozark clan life is codified into an extended clan war broadcast via satellite to their homes.
Granik and her co-scribe, producer Anne Rosellin, aren’t overwhelmed by such powerful vistas, and their low budget $2 million dollar Grand Jury Prize Sundance winner, is faithful to the milieu. They sympathetically adapt Daniel Woodrell’s country noir novel yet resist the easy option cinema expects of a Missouri often portrayed and seemingly generated from an unreconstructed civil war badland. It’s a tough life but it’s not the Outlaw Josey Wales where the civil war has left him and his kind no choice and no future.
an ambience of what isn’t there
Winter’s Bone doesn’t romanticise the barren smallholder reality into a bucolic weekend retreat replete with organic coffee served up with bluegrass muffins. What’s telling in the startlingly sharp cinematography is what isn’t included. It’s an environment relying on an ambience of what isn’t there. It’s the rural poverty where the scatterings of former and current inhabitants are left behind to fester and degrade. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blown up, burnt out ‘crank’ cook shop or reposed children’s trampolines, all are treated as being part of the universe that exists for the clan of the Ozark. It’s the United States of America; it’s the incongruity—the old, the new; it’s the scattered flotsam of modern life where the casual even ephemeral nature of violence may lead to the escalation of feuds in the fine traditions of Hatfield and McCoy.
Ultimately, Winter’s Bone explores the limitations of family: whether the archetypal Tennessee William’s Big Daddy southern chauvinist ruling a hierarchy within a clan dynasty as Thump does, or the music and nature of family that links the generations whether from the old country or not. Dickon Hinchliffe’s jaunty yet suitably subdued score reaches for those links as it underplays the trauma and Ree’s kith and kins’ inexorable slide into jeopardy. The banjo, stalwart yet misrepresented since Deliverance, solidifies that history, that culture and that future. It’s a future so universal to have been embraced numerous times to alleviate the hopelessness and bleakness whether in a south London social club sing song, as in Nil by Mouth or in a Ozark kitchen waltz with Missouri’s own Susan Boyle contender, Marideth Sisco.
Here’s what I thought: Stays on the right side of preachy while taking you on a journey where you’re happy to have bought a ticket. Probably the best Ozark film you’ll see this year.
Sneaky Watch Peeks: One sneaky watch peek but I’ll put that down to that free refill at Han’s Has Been Blends.