Ever since first hearing about Winter's Bone on NPR, I knew I wanted to watch the film. It was on Fresh Air, I believe, and Terry Gross was discussing the unique sounds of the film and how Realistic it sounded. Some sweet Appalachian music, abject poverty, and the struggles of a young girl in the harsh backwoods drug-circles of the Ozarks of Missouri sounded mighty appealing, for reasons more personal than I'd like to admit.
Truth be told, the opening images of Winter's Bone reminded me a lot of home and of childhood. We were in no way poor like the Dolly family was, but the similarities were close, especially if I go back a generation or two. I grew up in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a place known for its musical roots (such as the Everly Brothers, Mose Rager, and Merle Travis), coal mines, and methamphetamine. (Need I point to John Prine's ubiquitous song "Paradise," a somewhat county anthem?) I thank God I've never been involved with drugs, though many in my family have had their lives ruined because of the stuff.
Winter's Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old girl that spends her days taking care of her crazed mother and her two younger siblings. Ree's life is hard and bleak, and nearly every waking moment is spent cooking or cleaning or teaching her brother & sister how to do things in case she has to be away. Ree's dad, Jessup, has been away in jail/prison for a while due to his drug making. At the start of the film, a sheriff shows up telling Ree that Jessup has put the house up for bond and that if he doesn't show up to court soon then the Dolly's will lose their house and land.
The rest of the movie is spent with Ree looking for her father. She runs across all manner of people, and very few (I'm struggling to think of any) are helpful or friendly. This provides plenty of tension for the viewer. We're aware of how much the Dolly family depends on Ree, and should anything happen to her, what would become of the rest of them?
I'm not sure how to classify Winter's Bone. I'd say something like suspense/horror/pseudo-documentary/mystery. At one point I was breathing hard and felt my throat constricting, worried for Dolly. At another I was almost in tears. And that's part of the wonder of Winter's Bone--the film presents the scene and one cannot help but to react.
Maybe it's the lack of flair or high budget, but Winter's Bone is probably the most stirring movie I've watched in a long time. It could be that I can see this very stuff happening out my backdoor. It could be Jennifer Lawrence's* excellent performance, as well as the many other "unknown" faces as secondary characters. The mostly empty score (as in, there's not much background music at all, just natural sounds) almost gives the viewer an impression that they're watching a home video.
Winter's Bone was nominated for many awards last year, and its deserving of them. If you've not seen the film, it's worth the watch, though be warned that it's not a light viewing. If you've a heart, you'll likely feel burdened once the credits roll, but I'm not sure if that's the point. Yes, we need to be aware of situations like this, and we should help whenever we can, but we should also smile at Ree's perseverance and determination to see her family to safety, too.
While looking for the Fresh Air article (alas, I couldn't find it) online, I stumbled across an NPR First Listen featuring Gillian Welch and Dave Rawling's album (released today). I didn't know they were at work on one, but after listening through it, I can say that I enjoyed it tremendously. This duo is possibly the finest example of Appalachian music, and if you've never heard their stuff, give this first listen a go. You shan't be disappointed.
*I think she'll make a great Katniss when The Hunger Games hits the Big Screen. Maybe a touch too old, but Hollywood can change that.