White Trash, Warm Hearts.
September 28, 2010
The poetry of American poverty: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (USA 2010).
Winter’s Bone is a thriller: a detective story in which a girl must find her drug-dealer father to prevent the repossession of her family home to pay his bond. Were it set in some urban future dystopia and populated by gun-toting pneumatic blondes, it would be heralded, like Sin City, for its noir echoes: a surprising and compelling narrative structure, sparse, witty dialogue and hard-boiled characters who would sooner spit in your eye than shake your hand.
Set instead among meth-cooking hillbillys in contemporary Missouri, Debra Granik’s striking third movie has instead been criticised as ‘poverty porn,’ a term which, post Slumdog Millionaire, self-satisfied critics use offhand when they are made to think, against their will, about what life is actually like for the poor.
Poverty might be a major character in Winter’s Bone, but it’s not what the film is about. Yes, the film is a moral tale about family values, but the parameters of its morality could scarcely from the sewing sampler and mom’s-apple-pie saccharine of mainstream representations of the American rural poor.
Like the best of Annie Proulx’s short stories (which is how blockbuster Brokeback Mountain started life), Granik avoids language and lets landscape and setting tell most of her story for her. The few words that are spoken between members of the Dolly family run the registers from menacing to wise to comforting and back, and include stand-out lines like “I said shut up once with my mouth”, and “never ask for what ought to be offered.”
It is the quality of the silence that dominates most of the film that gives it its character. As seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) walks miles from homestead to homestead (these farm settlements seem only to have sunk into dilapidation since the days of the frontier) through mud and ice, the setting borders on the expressionist. Her desperation is obvious from the way that she stands alone, shrouded in her winter coat, staring down the unwelcoming facades of dark, wood-and-corrugated iron buildings with hellish meth smoke billowing from the cellars, open countryside at her back: nowhere to run to, no-one to speak to but a family who would rather beat her than have her ask questions that might endanger her and their way of life.
The unabashedly redneck Dolly family characters are bottomless. Their words never say what they mean; this is a community of people so used to being on guard against intrusion or attack that they do not speak honestly even with one another, although their meaning is always made abundantly clear by the action that accompanies it – as when Ree is told to “go away” by an aunt who passes her a cup of coffee at the same time. The message is not ‘you are unwelcome’ but ‘you are not safe here’.
Ree and her family are clearly living in opposition to law and order as it is dictated by the American state, but Winter’s Bone cuts against the grain of anti-hero cinema in its sympathetic portrayal of state officials. This is particularly clear in the behaviour of the bailiff who has to threaten Ree with repossession: ‘but for the grace of God, there go I’ is written in his eyes – and later his actions – as one poor American is forced by his allegiance with the state to mount an attack on another poor American.
When Ree seeks out an army recruiting officer (Russell Schalk), he actually dissuades her from joining up, saying, “sometimes it’s harder to stay at home”. Several contributing factors make this scene particularly moving. First, there is the tension between Ree’s entirely understandable desire for escape, and what would happen to her younger siblings, Ashlee and Sonny (Ashlee Thompson and Isaiah Stone) without her there to care for them. Then there is the fact that she is not permitted to join up, at seventeen, without parental consent; with her father missing, believed dead, and her mother incapacited by mental illness, the no-man’s land that Ree inhabits is thrown into sharp relief.
This message, that sometimes it is harder to stay at home, sometimes that’s the brave thing to do – that’s of vital importance in America today. The glamour of the military is being sold to poor people as vehemently as ever, and women like Ree go off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan every year.
Winter’s Bone is gruesome at times; it is hard, and the camera work alternates between a grainy, shaky, Dogme-style and montage work reminiscent of the literary stream of consciousness. The film is rough and experimental. It is also honest, and, largely thanks to performances by Lawrence, the two children and John Hawkes as the terrifying and unpredictable uncle Teardrop, it has at its heart such a weight of human compassion and endurance that, for all its cold and poverty, it is never bleak.
See the trailer here.