Here at Required Viewing, we love a bit of Oscar bait, we love an accent, we love JLaw and we LOVE scandal — Winter’s Bone has all of those things, but it’s no glossy period piece. It’s a gritty drama that posits questions about the limits of family loyalty and throws a light on some Appalachian dysfunction.
Now, AM, this one had been on the list for a while, but we kept pushing it in favor of lighter things. Tell us, what did you make of young Ree’s quest into the underworld to save the only home she’s ever known? Was it what you expected? Could you ever skin a squirrel?
A: Given that we’d just seen another “quest” film in Ben is Back, in which Ben and his mom go looking for the family dog in the most awful of places (drug houses, drug dealer houses, houses of teachers that Ben used to give sexual favors to, etc.), I was prepared for some awful things to happen to JLaw as she searched for her horrible father.
First, it’s interesting that we don’t even see so much as a photo of the family patriarch, Jessup. We meet the whole family and the entire surrounding neighborhood, but never Jessup. Ree’s quest to find her father is certainly not driven by love, but sure enough, the only glimpse we get of Jessup is when Merab Milton is chainsawing his hands off in the swamp. (shudder)
So, aside from that little gem, this movie was actually a bit less devastating than Ben is Back, or perhaps devastating in different ways. I was fairly incensed that Ree bears the brunt of the violence for “looking for answers” when actually, she just wants to know where her father is, or where his body is. She doesn’t care what happened, who killed him, what he knew, what he told, etc. But that doesn’t stop her from getting the shit beaten out of her by the Milton gangs. My sense of justice doesn’t allow for this, so the Miltons can go to hell.
Also: what was the deal with every adult offering Ree various drugs? I guess everybody doing the drugs means more customers for them?
Brooke, what did you think of the Appalachian justice rules? Why is everyone so into giving Ree drugs? And does it actually really matter what happened to Jessup?
B: I agree that Winter’s Bone is a different kind of tragedy to Ben is Back. Ree never had a hope of not coming into this kind of grit in her life, she was born into it — into an impoverished community where drugs are a way of life, the only way of getting by, and the rest of the country can’t be bothered to care. I think that’s why adults were always offering them to Ree — they couldn’t give her comfort or care, but they could offer a kind of escape.
Remember, this pre-dates the Heroin Epidemic, in the sense that affluent communities weren’t being impacted at a large scale yet, so it wasn’t reported on ad nauseam yet — even if the Rees of the world were already living it. Ben is Back is tragic because it’s a mother desperate to save her son who was knocked off the ideal course she had set for him, even if he’s in a no-win situation. In Winter’s Bone, Ree never knew anything approaching hope, she knew how to skin squirrels.
My moral code, like yours, doesn’t jive with Appalachian justice because that justice is set firmly against people trying to do right. It cares only for subverting the law and protecting the network that keeps everyone fed. Sociologically, I understand it, but I’d be quite happy for Ree to burn the whole thing down. I will say, however, that it absolutely tickles me that the bounty hunter respects her and the deputy fears her by the time all is said and done.
If anything, Ree and her siblings are better off with Jessup good and dead, but I do think his death matters in terms of what it does for Ree and for Teardrop. Ree finds a way to guarantee some kind of a future for herself and for her siblings. Meanwhile, Teardrop finds some redemption. I get the sense that he was the point-of-entry for the whole family in terms of the drug underworld. He was definitely inclined to look the other way when Jessup messed up, but ultimately, he couldn’t turn his back on the innocent lives that were impacted by his choices. And for that, his implied sacrifice is pretty beautiful.
AM, let’s talk about the performances in this picture.
A: Hell yes the deputy fears Ree. She brought a plastic grocery bag in WITH HER DAD’S HANDS IN IT. Maybe that happens every day in Appalachia, but I tend to think not.
Let’s also back up to Teardrop’s implied sacrifice. With the confirmation that the Milton head honcho, Thump, probably ordered the hit on Jessup, are we to assume that Teardrop goes on a rampage and tries to take out the Miltons, or dies trying?
Oh, the performances. Both JLaw and John Hawkes as Teardrop were nominated for acting Oscars, and it shows. JLaw has the best expressive cry face in the business, the exact opposite of Claire Danes’s. You know I love Claire, but we’ve discussed how absurd her face looks like mid-weep. JLaw, however, after an entire film of playing a stone-faced teen in way over her head, completely melts down mid-chainsaw incident (I mean, who wouldn’t?) and it’s a powerful moment of a young woman experiencing the first truly horrific event of her life. Sure, she’d seen darkness, but that was on another level. Hawkes is also fantastic as the mysterious uncle who’s actually the hero the Dolly family needs. And I’m always, always impressed with Dale Dickey as the spokeswoman of the Milton gang and said chainsaw-er.
Brooke, who else am I missing from your favorite performances? And what about the moral of the story? Were you ultimately left with hope that Ree and her little brother and sister are going to make it?
B: I think you hit all of the high points in terms of performances, but it is worth delivering a hearty hat-tip to director and co-writer Debra Granik, who made Leave No Trace, her first feature since Winter’s Bone, last year and who many believe was snubbed out of writing and directing nods by the Academy. Cause you know, it was another year of:
Anyway, I think Debra’s work here, while not exactly a morality tale, sends several very clear messages. First: Let’s not glamorize poverty. It’s really damn bleak and the cycle of intergenerational poverty is cruel. Second: Let’s not underestimate the ladies. Ree did not have time to suffer fools and neither do the rest of us. Third: Stay sexy and call your lawless uncle for backup when the local gang roughs you up for literally asking a question.
I do believe the implication is that Teardrop gives the kids the banjo and says hold on to it for me because he knows he’ll die challenging Thump, but he just can’t abide that kind of slight against his family. It’s almost as if his death is an effort to protect the kids, and by throwing himself on the sacrificial altar and doing a revenge all in one, the blood debt is paid. It’ll leave Ree and those kids to take care of themselves with the new money and the deed to their house well and surely secured. That’s not the happiest ending, it’s still a rough life, but at least home will still be home for them.
A: One more thing to add to this: drugs, especially meth drugs, are bad. The end.
Next time, we’ll go the exact opposite place on earth and time period for the not-true-but-fascinating take on Mozart’s short life in Amadeus.