On the Margins: Winter’s Bone, Independent Cinema, and Rural America
Several months ago, I sat in a bar and declared with an emphatic and slightly drunk thud of my fist that Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) was “the future of American cinema.” Aided by a pitcher of domestic pale-ale, and with the confidence usually associated with having “one too many,” I loudly asserted that this was one of the greatest films to be released in the last decade. Looking back, the bold proclamation that Winter’s Bone was the “future of American cinema” seems downright silly. I’m not even sure what that phrase actually means (although it certainly has a controversial élan to it). It was a Schnaps-idee as the Bavarians say– an idea seen through the bottom of an empty glass of alcohol. Still, it’s hard to ignore the sparse and distilled brilliance of Winter’s Bone. And although the film may not be “the future of American cinema,” Winter’s Bone is a prime example of filmmaking that challenges the melodramatic escapism of contemporary Hollywood. Winter’s Bone will not revolutionize Hollywood’s investment in mega-buck epics and what author David Foster Wallace labeled, “special f/x porn.” But that’s the point. This is after all, a film about living close to the bone.
Winter’s Bone begins at the shanty with the sagging roof deep in the rural Midwest. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives here with her younger brother and sister, and their mentally ill mother. It’s a measly existence, but she scrapes by. When the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) tells Ree that her father, Jessup, put the family’s house up as bond after an arrest for cooking meth and has fled, Ree is forced to pick up the pieces. In order to stop the law from taking her house Ree throws on her Carhartt jacket and hunts for the deadbeat Jessup. She starts by questioning the small-time crooks and vagrants she’s seen at family reunions. Suppressed resentments boil over, accusations of mistrust multiply, and carefully concealed secrets slowly crack open as Ree tracks down her father with the reluctant aid of her brutal uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). Eventually she tracks down local kingpin and distant relation, Thump Milton (Ron “Stray Dog” Hall) who has all the answers but refuses to give any. Her prying and prodding raises the ire of the obdurate locals who are intent on keeping Jessup’s disappearance a secret.
On the surface, Winter’s Bone’s narrative is straightforward, using familiar tropes found in both the noir and western genres. Ree’s reluctant determination recalls the grimaced heroism of Bogie’s Sam Spade. In other ways, Ree’s search for truth is reminiscent of the lone cowboy whose moral acuity is misplaced in a land of savagery and lawlessness. Granik draws from other sources of inspiration too. The film’s representation (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell) of the hollowed out heartland is hewn from the same literary imagination that spawned the works of Charles Bowden and Cormac McCarthy. The sallow countryside of scab-ash earth and twisted brush, the hard chatter of crows and the crack of a gunshot in the distance, the sparse dialogue and eruptions of violence, are all gothic in their rendering.
Winter’s Bone’s mise-en-scene reminds me of my own birthplace. I was born just outside of Marmora, an expired mining town in central Ontario. Not many people live there anymore and fringe habitations like those seen in Winter’s Bone are scattered across old logging trails and dirt roads in the Canadian Shield. Small cabins with tin roofs house the descendants of ambitious prospectors and fortune seekers whose claims were taken from them in men in three-piece suits during the gold craze. They are the grand children of sooty-faced miners whose hopes were swallowed up in the mine’s cavernous maw.
The gouged landscape, and the thick texture of the Ozarks captured by Michael McDonough’s photography, gives us a glimpse into a world whose anemic features are a revelation to most of us. The barrenness of the Ozarks is so pervasive, one only takes in stray details. Even the chickens, for want of better fare, pick away at the litter of rubble and mud. And yet, the filmmakers imbue the cold and austere Missouri backcountry with a strange beauty (*it’s a privileged beauty that only a comfortable outsider can have, I think. It’s doubtful that the locals in Granik’s world find any sort of “beauty” here.)
Like most alien places, there is also something unsettling in the woods. The viewer feels out of place here. The tension we feel is not merely a product of the drama onscreen, but also in our spectatorship. We are interloping, and the signs out here clearly state: No Trespassing! The feeling of intrusion is intentional. Winter’s Bone’s is fundamentally a meditation on alienated relationships whether they are national, communal, familial, or our own detachment from this part of America. Even the long arm of the law does not quite extend here. The Sheriff’s ability to enforce the State of Missouri’s decrees is met with resistance by the intransigent locals. Granik deftly ratchets up the tension in the film by playing these two opposite worlds off each other. The first instance occurs when Ree is first told that she must turn over her house to the court of law, and it sends her reeling into uncertainty and danger. The collision between civilization and “frontier” happens again when Ree resolves to join the U.S. Army in order to benefit from its financial package. She is shocked when the recruitment officer informs her that she does not meet the requirements for service. Ree tries to explain to the soldier that she needs the money, but he shrugs, clearly unable to help. Rules are rules after all.
Granik demonstrates that the rationale of the “real” world is incongruent with the material realities of Ozark life, and some people like Ree and her siblings are left to find other solutions. This consternation between civilization and outsider communities is evident in one of the film’s most taut scenes. The Sheriff, exercising his marshal authority, attempts to arrest Teardrop. Unable to reign in the outlaw, the sheriff is forced to back down when Teardrop pulls out his shotgun. Granik uses a series of closeups and obtuse angles to heighten the mood in a style reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s famous westerns. Teardrop’s threat of violence is (at least to the sheriff) irrational and nihilistic. Of course, Teardrop isn’t really being self-destructive here; he is guided by an ethic that is unrecognizable to rationale city folk and their deputies.
Winter’s Bone’s representation of rural life in the 21st century extends the boundaries established by the important films of the 1990s, which generally focused on the urban malaise of deindustrialization, American empire, and crises in masculinity. By repositioning the lens of the camera away from the city and suburbia toward America’s agrestic interior, Winter’s Bone reveals a forgotten America fractured by military conflicts and financial crises. This is the end of the line. America’s terminus. The refuse of Free Trade, outsourcing, and rampant, unchecked Capitalism. Washington’s urban-centred effort to reinvigorate the national economy and the faith of its people has overlooked these “wasted” regions. Left to there own devices, the periphery has adapted in unique and sometimes brutal ways. Winter’s Bone’s implicitly questions the rhetoric of American “prosperity” by contemplating life, death, and rebirth in the economic and social margins of the United States. The cinematic image’s strength is that it reveals a deeper sort of truth than those found on the surface. By constructing an inverted form of the mythologized American landscape, Granik challenges Hollywood’s partiality for banality and emptiness.
Some critics have accused Winter’s Bone of being “poverty porn.” I don’t think this criticism is accurate though. Granik doesn’t languish in the disenfranchised or the filth; she is more nuanced than that. True, this world is fascinating because of its alien-ness, but it isn’t fetishized. Without moral judgment, Granik documents the seedier facts of life on the fringe in almost utilitarian fashion. The poverty in Winter’s Bone is of the generational sort and there is no ”getting out.” Beneath this grimy exterior, however, there is also self-reliance. These people have huddled at the edge of an abyss and forged a hard life greased by subsistence hunting, drug trafficking, bribes, and squatting. Most notably, the Dolly’s family are involved in the Chrystal Methamphetamine trade, and although we feel ambivalent about whom to sympathize with, we begin to understand why things are the way they are.
Granik uses, I think, the bleakness of Ozark life (the drug trade, spousal abuse, violence etc.) to challenge the affluence and conservatism represented in Hollywood cinema. By recasting the aesthetic traditions and themes of Americana and outsider art previously explored by the likes of Robert Frank, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, Jacob Riis, and Terrence Malick, amongst others, Granik creates a portrait of outsider cultures. In doing so, Granik authentically documents a world whose aspect is receding from our cultural memories. Symbolically, Granik creates a landscape that is entombed in the past and at the same time an apocalyptic photograph of the future. Symbolically, the mausoleum of ancient machines covered in blood-red rust, windowless school buses, and John Deere tractors tangled in weed, represents the past, present, and future of the American hinterland.
Debra Granik’s grasp of her subject, and the precision with which she directs her actors in this tense thriller is impressive. But it is impossible to discuss the film’s significance in American cinema without mentioning the critical role of gender in Winter’s Bone. Granik takes the traditional masculine depiction of rural life and subverts it by framing everything that unfolds through Ree’s piercing gaze. As Granik noted in an interview, “every few years we need a gal on screen who can walk the walk of a hero…” Winter’s Bone is a feminist film about an anti-feminist world. In the movie, men represent power, and authority, with Thumper serving as the tribe’s patriarch. Most of the dialogue between the women characters is about men and their power. However, the men in the film fail abysmally through cowardice, greed, and spite. Ree on the other hand is a hero while still maintaining her femininity. Throughout the film, we see Ree in a nurturing role as she protects her family and seeks non-violent solutions to her problems. But she also confronts danger head on with courage and tenacity. “Ain’t you got no men that can do this?” Thump’s incredulous wife asks when Ree won’t get off her front porch. No. She is her family’s only hope in this sordid life. As David Denby writes in the New Yorker Winter’s Bone, in its “lived-in, completely non-ideological way…is one of the great feminist works in film.” Even the medicated Teardrop played by the chilling John Hawkes is more of a sidekick than a savior. Lorded by chemicals, Teardrop is unpredictable and violent. He is a man of sinewy power and riven with crude tattoos. And yet, he is unable to bully Ree into giving up. In fact, Teardrop, inspired by her determinism, offers his help. Significantly, Winter’s Bone is not only directed by a woman, but also includes a strong presence of female artistry, craftsmanship, and leadership, within the crew. One hopes that this promotes change within the film industry to embrace more women both onscreen and off.
– mclemens –