Survival is nothing more than recovery

As big a fan of the movie theatre experience as I am, I must admit that some films really are best viewed at home, curled up under a blanket in the dark. There is something about that level of intimacy that allows a film to really envelop you before truly sinking in. Winter’s Bone is such a film.

Its story is set in the Ozark Mountains. The place and people seem lost in time, or forgotten by it. Their environment is not unlike that of a post-apocalyptic waste land, its trees barren, its landscape littered with debris and abandoned trailers.

Somewhere, somehow, tucked away from the rest of the world 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has learned how to take care of herself, her two younger siblings, and her mentally disconnected mother. She is ignorant, but not unintelligent. She is the survivor most of us are lucky enough to never have to be. There is a quiet confidence about her and we wonder where that might have come from. She has dignity as well, telling her younger brother “don’t ask for what oughta be offered.”

One day the Sheriff arrives and tells Ree that her meth-dealing father has put up their family home on bond. If he doesn’t make his court date, the state will take it from them. For Ree there isn’t a moment of doubt. She says she’ll find him, alive or dead. Probably dead.

She comes across many people in her search, no small amount of them related to her. Here is an area ripe for caricature, but director Debra Granik never crosses that line. There are some lines that hint at inbreeding, others that speak pretty directly to it, but it’s never used for shock value. It is what it is.

One major figure in Ree’s life is her uncle Teardrop (Probably not his proper, Christian name. Although, maybe?), played by the excellent character actor John Hawkes. He is a hard-edged, distrustful drug addict, and yet he seems to have real affection for his niece, if not respect. And while Ree’s journey may lead her to some sort of catharsis, Teardrop’s is one of near-Shakespearian tragedy. His final line is a heavy one.

Winter’s Bone sneaks up on you. It snuck up on me. The more I watched Ree try to save her home, trusting people to do the right thing, being disappointed in them when they didn’t and moving forward regardless, the more I felt the weight of the film. It’s quiet in every sense, but unflinching. It’s also the kind of film that deserves the praise it’s getting, but is probably too subtle to get over the hump. Time will tell.

Winter’s Bone is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a supporting role (John Hawkes), Best Actress in a leading role (Jennifer Lawrence) & Best Adapted Screenplay

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