First off, if Debra Granik’s sophomore feature Winter’s Bone is playing in your area and you haven’t seen it already, stop reading and hie ye to the theater. I’d also highly recommend listening to Granik’s recent Fresh Air interview with novelist Daniel Woodrell.
Recently, a handful of American pictures have focused on working-class hardship and systemic decay that foreground female talent behind and in front of the camera. I heralded Courtney Hunt and Melissa Leo’s work in 2008’s Frozen River. Winter’s Bone is this year’s contender, and it looks like it may capitalize on industry and word-of-mouth buzz amidst blockbuster squalor in ways Frozen River was unable.
This haunting, poetic film is adapted from Woodrell’s book of same name, which I now must read. It tells the story of Ree Dolly, a teenage girl from the Ozarks whose family property has been posted by her meth cooker father as his bail. He’s left home and if he doesn’t make it to trial, his wife and children lose their land. So it’s up to Dolly, who looks after her two young siblings and invalid mother, to save her family. Tough stuff, but all of it is played with quiet dignity by Jessica Lawrence, who should get an Oscar nod for her unadorned performance as the brave, resourceful Dolly. If veteran character actors like John Hawkes and Dale Dickey get accolades for their performances as relatives Teardrop and Merab, so much the better.
There were several occasions when I feared the narrative would pander to hackneyed character motivation and plot devices, but it never faltered. Save for a few shots that juxtapose Dolly with defenseless squirrels or shuttled livestock, I appreciate the movie’s subtlety and nuanced depictions of this world. So much is implied or understood rather than explicitly stated, which honors this culture’s codes of silence and ramps up the import of Dolly’s quest.
I also liked the emphasis placed on Dolly’s relationships with her kid brother and sister, the latter of whom was played by newcomer Ashlee Thompson, whose house stood in as the family estate. Dolly has interesting relationships with her friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), a peer with a young family of her own. She also develops an interesting dynamic with Merab and her crew of female heavies who intimidate Dolly about keeping quiet about their meth dynasty before helping her save her father (or what remains of him) to clear the Dolly name.
My radar is especially keen toward stolen musical moments. Thus, I was delighted that the movie’s final image is of Dolly and her siblings sitting on their porch as kid sister Ashlee strums her father’s banjo. I’m obviously a fan of girl musicians. More importantly, ownership of and fluency with this discarded instrument represents the Southern tradition of using music as a form of familial communion and communication strategy. I’m specifically addressing a white Southern musical heritage here, though black Southern populations of course have their own traditions that sometimes commingle and overlap. While the banjo may seem like a mere family heirloom, it’s a heavy symbol for the Dolly family. It needs to be restrung and tuned, indicating the ways in which its previous owner left his family in disrepair. It’s also one of the few souvenirs he left his namesake. In a rural area wrecked by failing commercial agriculture, increasing dependence on the manufacture and use of cheap drugs, and the constant threat of land loss, it’s a weighty talisman. But like so many families before, it’s also a tool for the Dolly family to tell their story.
In reflecting on the how the movie honors Southern musical traditions, I was especially taken with Marideth Sisco‘s involvement as a singer and musical consultant. Not a name I recognized going in, I was captivated by her cameo. She appears in the scene where Dolly talks to her father’s ex-girlfriend during a family gathering. Amidst the circle, Sisco sings a few folk songs I had never heard but surely carry historical significance long obfuscated by insularity, minimal attempts at preservation, and the outside world’s ignorance. A long-time musician, journalist, and expert of the Ozarks’ folk culture, Sisco’s participation suggests the movie celebrates female involvement in the cultivation of its musical identity. Sure beats getting T-Bone Burnett to lend his “credibility” to the project. Though I’m sure this humble yet mighty picture couldn’t afford his price tag, I think they made a wise investment in Sisco. You’ll make a smart decision by seeing and hearing Winter’s Bone.