Winter’s Bone

Written by  //  February 13, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  1 Comment

While it’s true that sometimes there can be nothing worse than a bad American independent film, it must be said that the good- and often great- ones almost invariably fill me up with a warm glow of cynicism, shiny-eyed pessimism and a strong desire to grow a mean beard and stare out in the distance over a churning sea. The stereotype also extends to the fershnickered character seeking what the director of Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, in an interview, calls “capital R redemption”. Redemption in this movie is sought by the character played by John Hawkes, unforgettably named Teardrop, when he decides to help Ree search for her father and stick with her till the end even against his best instincts. This has earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination and the Academy could have done a lot worse by not nominating him at all.

Instincts keep the characters afloat in the unforgiving world of Winter’s Bone. Set in the bleak and rugged Ozark mountains in southern Missouri, the film observes the quest of Ree, played with beautiful grit by Jennifer Lawrence, looking for her father when the sheriff announces that she’ll lose her house if he doesn’t show up for his court date. She lives with her incapacitated mother and two younger siblings. Not willing to give up, she works her way through the guarded and unfriendly social network of the local hillbillies who are all involved in the drug trade. During the journey, she has to constantly face the possibility that her father, known for cooking the best meth in the area, has been killed for snitching or made to disappear without any trace (which would still mean the loss of her house).

It’s a rare tale about a good person struggling against an uncertain future and all of us who know Latin will recognize it with the phrase: ‘rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno’ or, ‘a good person is as rare as a black swan’. Moreover, the race against time may or may not have lasted for a hundred and twenty seven hours, but it definitely ends in a wrenching climax with severed hands.

The film is refreshingly free of the terrible clichés of ‘southern people’ we are subjected to in American movies almost all the time and confronts the harsh nature of a small community that sustains itself by its own rules and moorings which are often buried deep into a complicated slush of patriarchy and sicilian codes of honour and silence. Ree is strong and responsible: a true fighter, but without the Oscarry trappings of delivering a slow-motion knock-out punch in a flood-lit boxing ring. She cooks for her brother and sister and in another frightening scene, teaches them to shoot with a rifle. Closely observed scenes situated in a landscape that seems to be a cross between gothic and post-apocalyptic wastelands make this a miniature gem about regular people and their desperate struggles. Parents and responsible authority figures are conspicuously absent and Teardrop’s attempt to fill this role makes him look like an exposed wound, struggling against his baser, louche self. In spite of all that, the film ends in a slightly hopeful note and we might think yet that the kids will be all right.

It’s quite clear by now that Winter’s Bone has played the strong Oscar card of evoking the titles of fellow-nominees in its own text. This could be a more useful marker for me than the usual ‘last ten years’ approach which did not, personally speaking, help me much with my ICSE either. But if we must, then we have precedents in the form of major Sundance Film Festival winners scoring big on Oscar night. Like Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Additionally, most indie films that do make some noise at the Oscars are usually blessed with writing or supporting actor nods like Alan Arkin’s for Little Miss Sunshine. Precious, again, won for both. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is neither deranged nor afflicted, so no Oscar for her leading actress turn. John Hawkes, on the other hand, might be a surprise winner for Best Supporting Actor. It’s hard to imagine anyone snatching the Adapted Screenplay Oscar from Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the film about the guy who invented liking things. Small films like Hurt Locker do win the Best Picture award occasionally by trumping titanic favourites of the season, but it will be a steep and uphill journey for Winter’s Bone.

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