E: It’s not easy to imagine, from a soft American suburb, the way compassion nestles in next to indifference. When you’re sitting at home on a winter’s night, snow seems like a warm blanket. It’s easy to forget that the frost can kill. It’s easy to believe there’s only kindness in the world. It’s easy to believe that level of abject poverty and despair couldn’t exist here in our own country. But in Winter’s Bone, we see a fair measure of the worst (as well as the best) of human behavior. If I say that Ree Dolly could have lived in the Dendarii mountains, those of you who can locate that range will understand.
In truth, Ree Dolly inhabits a tart, bleak corner of the Ozarks. She’s 17, and she lives on a small farm with her two younger siblings, a host of semi-domesticated animals, a few shot guns, and her essentially catatonic mother. Without visible means of support, they still take stray dogs in from the woods. (“Can I keep him? His name is Peanut Butter!”) The land is cold and rugged, with bleached winter browns and graying greens, but her people live by a clear code. They don’t ask for what ought to be given. They stand on their own feet. They give help where it’s needed. And they don’t tell tales. “I’m a Dolly, bread and butter,” she tells the law man who comes visiting, and what she means is that she’s the rock the mountains are made of; silent, strong and true.
She’s going to need that toughness. The options before her are stark, the sheriff’s deputy tells her. Her father put the family farm up as security for his bond, and he’s missed his court date. He might be cooking crank – or someone other than the law might have caught up with him. If he isn’t found within the week, she won’t simply be dependent upon the kindness of neighbors for hay and venison stew; she’ll be looking for a new home, towing dead weight behind her.
Whether she’s dropped out of school to care for her siblings or has graduated young we’re never told, but she doesn’t spend her time in the classroom. She dreams of escaping through the Army, and of providing for her family from the $40,000 signing bonus. But the bonus can’t be depended on to come even within a year, let alone in time to prevent the bondsman from taking the farm. There’s no escape. Ree doesn’t even have a car to look for her father; she has to walk, or beg the truck off a friend (now married with a new baby), or gingerly ask for help from dangerous addict Teardrop. Her desperate search runs her afoul of a local criminal gang, to which she’s distantly related, and the polite insistence and unflinching bravery with which she faces them wins her a grudging respect.
This story is spare and haunting. There’s shocking violence and casual cruelty in Ree’s journey; meanness explodes from unexpected corners. It’s sometimes hard to watch. But what’s satisfying here is that there are real stakes. You care about this girl, and you fear for her and little Sonny and Ashley. You believe that her world and her struggles are real, that it’s specific and original. I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a movie (or tv show, or read a book) about a teenage girl which didn’t include a single mention of a love interest – not a wink, not a nudge, not a hint. It’s so refreshing that I can’t even explain it. Not that I don’t love a good romance, of course, but it’s so nice to see the range of stories expanded. Surely I’ve never seen a girl teach her younger brother how to shoot a rifle or skin a squirrel before, but Ree knows what it takes to survive.
Jennifer Lawrence seems a lock for a Best Actress nomination. Watch for the expression on her face when she gives her starving pony to her neighbor because she can’t afford to feed it; I fell in love with her character in that one look. It’s nearly the only time you see the frightened little girl who wants some joy and some stability for herself, almost the only moment where she allows herself to grieve for something she loves and can’t keep. While Natalie Portman and Annette Bening contend for the win, Lawrence will ride her own nod to a massively raised profile and broadened professional choices. Veteran character actor John Hawkes is also on the short list for a Supporting Actor nod – the murkiest category of this year. I want to spit when I think that Hawkes might be passed over for one of the Facebook crew. He’s by turns mercurial, taciturn, vulnerable, violent, tender and terrifying. He’s a tragedy of circumscribed choices, caught between his addictions, his temper, and a rigid ethical code. In Teardrop, Hawkes has created something lasting, devastating, beautiful.
I’ll say the same of the film. I ate, slept and dreamed Ree Dolly for days after I saw it; I was haunted by her story, and that’s what we want, isn’t it? In the end, it just might be the best live action film I’ve seen all year. The movie is one of perhaps 3 fighting for the last two slots on the ten film Best Picture list, and I desperately hope that it makes the cut. I’d love to see it honored with an Adapted screenplay nod as well, and it does stand a chance in that difficult field. No, it’s not perfect. And it’s definitely not pretty. But it’s a real American story for all that.