Winter’s Bone (2010): Finding Sundance in the Ozarks

Winter's BoneWinter’s Bone follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as she searches for her father who posted his family’s house for his bail and disappeared. Facing the risk of losing her home, Ree must find her father before his court date arrives. Of course, there are plenty of hiding places in the wild Ozark mountains which the Dolly’s call home. Part of what makes Granik’s film so intriguing is how impossible Ree’s task seems and how little help she is given along the way. When she begins hiking across the Missouri countryside to ask the neighbors about her father, we find that Ree has plenty of family but far fewer friends. For some unknown reason, no one wants to talk to the abandoned teen. “Ain’t you got no men who could do this?” one particularly uninviting neighbor asks. The answer is “No, ma’am,” and the question brings up a theme which is never again so explicitly stated.

After we spend a little time in Ree’s world, the rules of the community begin to reveal themselves more and more. There’s an unspoken system of customs that favors men, divides kin into tribes, and prohibits neighbors from snitching. Ree’s quest is to slip through the customs to find the truth. The truth, as the audience will find, is buried deep within a land undoubtedly rich in history, but surprisingly inept at recording it. Images and sounds of Ozark tradition are easy to find. The opening sequence features an a cappella rendition of “The Missouri Waltz,” an Ozark folk tune written in 1914 called “The Missouri Waltz.” Later in the film, there is a bluegrass interlude and later still, we see live country music being played in a bar which Ree and her uncle Teardrop visit. Music provides a strong sense of the past’s hold on the world that Ree boldly disrupts, but the evidence of a culture in decay can be seen in the rust of abandoned cars, the splintered wood of dilapidated houses and shacks, and the assortment junk littered throughout the Dolly’s yard. Other than that, the past is a mystery only glimpsed in photographs and gossip.

The Authentic Ozarks

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The mystery facing Ree Dolly brings significantly less evidence and clues than we’ve come to expect from this kind of story. When Hitchcock gave Jimmy Stewart a pair of binoculars, there was no need to leave the comforts of a cozy apartment to learn each neighbor’s secrets. There is no room for James Stewart or Grace Kelly in Winter’s Bone. Ree’s world, which Granik creates with an astounding attention to detail, is tough and humorless, void of any urban notions of glamour and style.

All of this, the music, the rust and wood, contributes to an atmospheric authenticity which is nearly as striking as the grain and grime of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and Winter’s Bone has its own share of chainsaws, by the way). The result is a dive into the crevices of Ozark culture that, true to the style of many Sundance films, is skillfully distinct from a typical depiction of the area but also modestly realist in form. Director Debra Granik’s background in creating documentaries and immersively realist fiction films such as 2004’s Down to the Bone, a film about a mother struggling to cope with increasing marital difficulties and a secret drug addiction, is palpable here. As hinted earlier, there is a long cinematic tradition of telling stories of mysterious disappearances that reaching across genres from Hitchcock’s early The Lady Vanishes (1938) to the ambiguous art-house glory of foreign films L’Avventura (Italy, 1960) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia, 1975) to recent crime thrillers like Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Prisoners (2013). Winter’s Bone belongs to the last category; it cannot claim to be one of the most original films to tell these kind of stories, but as a relatively simple thriller, the film’s modest ambitions are exceeded. Of course, there are glimpses of the classics. In particular, there’s a hint of a Searchers-esque western in the isolated natural setting and subtle, prolonged suspense.

Still, the proceedings never feel like a homage to any part of cinema history. Granik does not seem to relish the prospect of making us sweat or keeping us on the edge of our seat. Winter’s Bone might be classified as a thriller, but it never aspires to be the kind of genre film that flirts with the audience’s fears. Undoubtedly, this will disappoint some who have grown accustomed to watching films crafted to appease viewers’ appetite for entertainment. For others, the film could be a pleasant surprise. Especially for those of us who have become disinterested in big budget shoot ‘em ups, star-driven flops, and battling superheroes the kind of entertainment Winter’s Bone offers is exhilarating.

More than a display of skillful independent filmmaking, the film transports and presents a setting and characters with a tenderness that rewards patience. A further level of legitimacy in Granik’s realist depiction of southern Missouri is apparent in the decision to shoot the entire film on location in the Ozarks with a cast consisting largely of Missouri locals and nonprofessionals. If IMDb is to be trusted, even the film’s title is rooted in an old Appalachian saying: “like a dog digging after a winter’s bone.”

The Italian Connection

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A still from Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950)

Taking into account the casting of nonprofessionals, the filming on location, and the overall authenticity of Winter’s Bone, the film seems to harken back to Italian neorealism, a region of cinematic history which is largely unexplored by contemporary American audiences. The Italian neorealist movement was marked by the release of films by filmmakers who were dedicated to representing truth. These filmmakers’ adherence to capturing truth on camera led to the formation of a cinematic movement in which extraordinary new measures were taken by the filmmakers: They wrote screenplays about topics relevant to post-war Italy. They aimed to take on the perspective of common people. They hired nonprofessional actors. They strove to make films which felt less like studio movies and more like the lives they were living. Italian films of the forties and fifties like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) aimed to encapsulate the post-war Italian experience. For many, it was a bitter reality; for most filmmakers, the social issues of that time and place were essential to their art. Director Roberto Rossellini said:

“For me (neorealism) is nothing more than the artistic form of truth . . . I cannot believe in an entertainment film . . . if it is not a film which is at least partially capable of attaining the truth. The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the film from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete . . . It refuses recipes and formulas . . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think.” (Overbey)

How is Rossellini and Italian neorealism relevant in a review of this Jennifer Lawrence movie? First, I would point out that it is important to know that films, like other art forms, follow trends and document certain portions of the present and past. Film has the ability to expose what is most common in human nature, but it can also simply display a struggling teenager’s search for her father. When done in an skillfully, the result can be life-altering. The neorealists’ perspective on cinema is enlightening when discussing Winter’s Bone, because it points out that film can be a meaningful reflection of the human experience.

Furthermore, such film movements still occur across the globe, but also in the United States. American independent cinema took off in the eighties and has only become more prominent and impressive since. The Sundance Film Festival has been a major part of the rise of American indie films, especially since Steven Soderbergh’s influential sex, lies, and videotape won the Audience Award there in 1989. Twenty-one years later, Winter’s Bone premiered at the festival in Park City, Utah, and won the Grand Jury prize.

A Sundance Film

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After attending the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and watching many of the films which the festival has screened in the past, I can attest that Winter’s Bone is exactly the kind of film which has become a staple at the festival. In his review of the film, A.O. Scott wrote:

“Winter’s Bone, warmly embraced at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, belongs, at least at first glance, to one of that festival’s familiar genres: the regional-realist morality tale. These days, American independent cinema abounds in earnest stories of hard-bitten people living in impoverished corners of the country, their moral and emotional struggles accompanied by acoustic guitars and evocative landscape shots and generally uninflected by humor.”

Perhaps this sounds as if Scott is beginning to dismiss the film as dull or unoriginal (he is not). In fact, he has articulated one of the film’s hidden virtues, one that is essential to my own experience with Winter’s Bone. My memory of watching Winter’s Bone will forever be lodged snuggly within the context of the Sundance Film Festival. The festival loves to push films that explore new or previously unrevealed aspects of the United States. Of course, the festival shows plenty of foreign films, a few of which were among the best I saw at the festival this year, but the main attractions are always those highly-anticipated American films which make their debuts in Park City.

Now consider the significance of Winter’s Bone, a humble piece of Americana, winning the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. My point is not that the Sundance jurors have great taste, but that the films that come out of Park City, which has been a home to the most recent film movement in our country, are worth your consideration. In particular, I am recommending Winter’s Bone as a place to start.

This essay/review was written for a film studies class on May 4, 2016

 

 

Works Cited

Overbey, David. Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-realism. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1979. Print.

Scott, A.O. “Where Life Is Cold, and Kin Are Cruel.” Rev. of Winter’s Bone. The New York Times 10 June 2010: n. pag. Web.

 

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