I like almost everything about Winter’s Bone. The only thing that makes me temper my praise of it is that when all was said and done, it didn’t make me feel a great deal, didn’t touch me on a deep level. Not that very many movies do, but maybe one in twenty or one in fifty films I feel reaches me in some more significant way. And most of those probably aren’t as good as this one, or at least have more things about them that I can pick out to criticize.
Winter’s Bone is the story of a girl/young woman somewhere in the backwoods of the Ozarks who has taken upon herself the responsibility of caring for her two young siblings (who I assumed for much of the movie were her kids—doh!—leaving me puzzled whether she was several years older than she looked or they were several years younger than they looked), since her mother has pretty much gone insane and withdrawn from the world, and her father is a lowlife drug dealer who’s in and out of incarceration, on the lam, pretty useless when he’s around, etc.
Early in the film, the girl is informed that her father has skipped bail and disappeared, and that since he put up their house to make bail, the house will shortly be taken away from the family unless he comes back or is proven to be dead.
She is convinced that if the house is lost, the family will not survive, given that she’s the only even halfway functional one left who could earn any money. She stands to lose “custody” of her brother and sister (seedy relatives hint they’d be willing to take one or both of them), and Lord knows what would happen to her mother—she’d be institutionalized I suppose.
She decides that this is unacceptable to her, and the bulk of the movie consists of her doing anything and everything in her power to bring her father back dead or alive before the deadline where they will lose the house.
From early on it appears far more likely he’ll be coming back dead if at all. He is rumored to have panicked and given information to the cops to try to finagle his way out of a long sentence for this particular beef, and the people he crossed in doing so are not the type to take such a thing lightly.
This is one of those stereotypical inbred hillbilly areas where everyone is everyone else’s third cousin or great aunt or something-or-other twice removed. So the people he was mixed up with, the people who likely killed him, the people who are all involved in one way or another with the local narcotics trade, the people she’s now having to plead with, negotiate with, demand, and cajole to help her, are all at least distant relatives of her and each another.
That’s actually her one ray of hope of getting cooperation from these folks. They fancy themselves as principled people who live by a certain code, a lot of which has to do with loyalty to family. What these principles require of them is vague and uncertain, and each individual’s interpretation of them and willingness to abide by them is anyone’s guess, but she doesn’t have a lot of other straws to grasp.
As I say, there’s a lot to like about this movie, and precious little to knock.
To begin with, the atmospherics are masterful. The scenery, the lighting, the decrepit dwellings and cars, the fact that just about everybody in this area is ugly and looks in need of a bath—it’s all at just the right level of creepy realism.
But beyond that, it’s socially, behaviorally, just as realistic (and at least as creepy).
Think of a movie like (the very good) Deliverance. Part of the reason that movie succeeds is that you mostly just get glimpses of the bad guy locals. They’re an almost supernaturally malevolent Other, hovering off camera the bulk of the time, only occasionally making a brief and shocking foray into view. There’s an ominous mystery to them.
Nearly always if a movie chooses instead to let you get to know the bad guys up close and personal, let you see how they live, observe how they think and feel, it’s a letdown. Invariably the bad guys seem caricaturish, or not so scary after all, or one-dimensional, or what have you. It’s really tough to bring them out of the shadows successfully.
Yet that’s what this movie does. This is Deliverance or Southern Comfort, but you’re not just glimpsing these people occasionally from outside; you’re getting to know them as full characters, getting to see how they interact with each other.
It’s the kind of subculture that seems like it could be on another planet. Just due to TV and all the rest, surely their lifestyle, their worldview, their life experiences overlap with the rest of the world far more than they would have a hundred years ago, but still there’s the feeling that this is a bizarrely isolated subculture of primitive folks who have their own ways, and who don’t much know or care what’s going on in the world outside their little circle.
When I compare it to movies like Rush, which was decent, or Shotgun Stories, which was at least as good, the difference is striking. Both of those movies were reasonably successful—I thought—in creating a realistic and disturbing depiction of crude southerners, the criminal druggie subculture, etc., yet for sheer realism this movie blows them away. The vast majority of the characters in those films still felt like movie people, whereas in this film they feel like people you could imagine encountering in real life (though hope to God you never do).
Even something at the level of quality of the best of Martin Scorcese doesn’t feel as real as this. As good as the DeNiro and Pesci characters are, they’re still Hollywood style bad guys.
And the characters in this movie aren’t just collectively impressively realistic; they are individually well drawn, distinct, and memorable.
The main character herself is a strong female lead. The kids are innocent and sympathetic without being over the top sweet and perfect. The leader of the distant relatives who likely killed her father—to the very limited extent he appears in the movie rather than just being talked about—is just what he should be.
As interesting a character as any is her uncle, the brother of the missing man. He didn’t exactly win me over early, calmly uttering the classically ugly warning to his wife, “I told you once with my mouth to shut up” (implying that he’ll shortly be delivering this command with something other than his mouth). At that point I would have said the chances of my ending up liking him were close to zero.
But in fact he turns out to be one of the most human characters in the movie. There’s no ludicrous transformation—he’s still not someone you’d want in your life—but he has his admirable qualities.
There are many striking things about this movie. Like the main character being advised that if she intends to prove her father is dead by bringing back a hand of the corpse, she’d better bring both, because “they’re onto that trick” of wanted men chopping off their own hand (but apparently not both) when faking their death. Really? There are a plethora of one-handed hillbillies living in the shadows wanting the authorities to believe they’re dead? Enough that the authorities eventually caught on that it’s a ruse? Heck, I don’t know. Could be.
Another thing that strikes me is what an utterly miserable existence these people have, despite all the drug money. I would think there’d have to be a better payoff to get people to pursue a lifestyle where so many die young, spend the bulk of their adult life in prison, chop off their hand (supposedly), etc., but evidently not. They can keep a roof over their head and subsist (and for most of them presumably, secure enough drugs for their own use), but evidently little else.
Then again, the book Freakonomics famously asked the question, if drug dealing is so lucrative, “Why do [so many] drug dealers still live with their moms?” So evidently it’s not a phenomenon limited to the Ozarks.
Anyway, there’s more I could say about this movie, more scenes that come to mind, but this will have to suffice.
As I say, Winter’s Bone didn’t have whatever intangibles it would have needed to impact me even more strongly, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this film. It just means I experienced it as a very good movie instead of an extraordinary movie.