As a reporter long ago, I worked a story involving illegal trash dumping in Georgia. After locating a popular illegal dump, I headed up the walkway to the nearest door. I was met by a shadow, a man I never quite saw, asking suspiciously about my business there. I identified myself. He told me to leave, with serious intent in his voice.
Walking down that driveway is the only time in my life when I’ve been convinced that a shotgun was leveled at my head. I didn’t see it. I couldn’t prove it. But I won’t forget it.
That unnerving feeling arose again as I watched the cavalcade of backwoods characters – meth dealers and hostile faces – in “Winter’s Bone.” Every conversation hides a lurking danger, but you have a hard time getting a handle on the smoky nature of the peril.
The 2010 Sundance Grand Jury winner shares with the year’s other great film, Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” the formula of mystery deaths and amateur sleuths in over their heads. The “Ghost Writer”’s elite characters and Cape Cod setting are a socio-economic mega-leap away from this film’s methamphetamine America.
That amateur sleuth is Ree Jessup, a resourceful teenager barely making it, encamped in an Ozark cabin coated by winter’s chill. I would call her poorer than dirt, but dirt has asked not to be associated with her lifestyle. She cares for a little brother and sister, surviving off the scraps of a neighbor. Her mother has been struck deaf and dumb by too much of something – drugs, death, life.
Her absent father, a legendary meth cook, has jumped bail, leaving the family home on the brink of foreclosure. Ree has one week to track him down for his court date. Smart but naïve, brave but vulnerable, Ree pushes into the business of the locals, all distant cousins, as she investigates her father’s disappearance. Her unstoppable search places her further and further into danger and grotesque secrets.
“Winter’s Bone” gets at something I’ve seen in person but never on film. Small towns are usually shown as either racist Hickvilles or as wholesome antidotes to city life. That is to say, rural America is a constructed otherness that inverses attitudes toward city life at any one time. Yet, films only occasionally reveal rural America for its own sake. Witness a side of modern rural America rarely seen – one where addiction is replacing tradition and where criminal ties have replaced family ties. These wildly conflicting trends inform and destroy each other. The conflict is most wholly centered in the person of Ree’s uncle Teardrop (slyly played by John Hawkes), who must steer between rival codes of behavior.
Equal to this rough environment is its fringe-dwelling Nancy Drew, as well as the young actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence. Sometimes you wonder if it is the actress or the role that makes a great character. I have no doubt that Ree Jessup is a great character on the page, but Lawrence is such a natural steel wildflower that you might be shocked to find out that, yes, she is only a teenager.
If Lawrence becomes a star, it won’t be the first such launch for director Debra Granik, whose last film “Down to the Bone” brought Vera Farmiga into prominence. Granik mines the same “fringes of American Life” territory as Ramin Bahrani’s ”Chop Shop” or Kelly Reichart’s “Wendy and Lucy.” Reichart’s film has definitely grown on me with time and reflection. However, there’s something in Granik’s film that seems less theoretical, less like a sociology experiment and more like a living story. The result is a wonder.