SIFF, Week One: Winter’s Bone (United States, 2010, 95 mins)

On a day that feels more like winter than spring, how appropriate that I see a movie with the word “winter” in the title.  As I followed the line of moving ticket holders, I saw SIFF volunteers (staff?) taking photos of two women. one with her arms around the other.  I found out from the opening remarks that one of the women was the director of Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik.  And then, she came up on stage and introduced the film to us.  We also learned there would be a Q & A with her afterwards, and possibly with one of the actresses, too.  In addition, there’s a Seattle connection to this movie, since one of its executive producers used to live and work here (sorry, I don’t have a name).  She now lives and works in New York City.

But before we got to the movie, the audience had to sit through to a VERY long trailer for a movie called Everyday is a Holiday.  If a movie trailer is meant to make me want to see a movie, then that trailer failed miserably.

Anyway, Winter’s Bone is about seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), her community, blood ties, and a mystery.  The mystery concerns her father, Jessup Dolly, but we don’t hear about him until fifteen or more minutes into the film.  The opening shot shows the children playing outside (Ree’s younger brother Sonny and their younger sister Ashlee, played by Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson, respectively), while a woman sings the “Missouri Waltz,” starting in the middle of the song:

‘Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody,
When I was Pick-a-ninny on ma Mamma’s knee
The darkies were hummin’, Their banjos were strummin’
So sweet and low

From there, we watch the Dolly family, as Ree takes care of her siblings, while her mother sits in a mute waking slumber.  We see Ree go to school and check out the military recruits marching.  We find out later that she wants to join the army in order to provide for her family (recruits are paid $40,000 for signing up).

Like an Ozu movie, the plot reveals itself only after some time has passed, and never takes the focus away from the actors.  While chopping wood, Ree finds out from the local sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) that her father put up the house and the woodshed for bond, and if he doesn’t show for court, they will lose both.  She promises to find him, and so goes walking across the Ozarks to question people.  They include Gail (Lauren Sweetser–found by the director through a casting call in the Ozarks) one of Ree’s friends, whose husband owns a truck (so that she can drive down to Arkansas and see if her father is down there).  Unfortunately, he won’t let her borrow it.  Next she goes to see her father’s older brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who does not care what has happened to his brother.  Next she goes to Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), who used to make drugs with her dad, and runs into Megan (Casey MacLaren).  The final person Ree goes to see is Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), though she doesn’t get past Merab (Dale Dickey), who tells her that Thump does not want to talk to her.

What we learn through this series of events is that everyone in this community is related to each other.  Ree invokes her distant relationship with Thump (in terms of drops of blood) in order to get Merab to ask him to talk with her.  With Teardrop, it’s even more direct, since he is her uncle.  Later in the film, when Ree is beaten up at Thump’s place for asking too many questions, Teardrop appears to rescue her, saying that she is blameless in what her father did, but if she does anything in the future for which she should be blamed, “It’s on me.”

What her father did is “cook” drugs, and then turned stool pigeon.  Ree gets her first hint that something ominous might have happened while questioning her dad’s former lover, who says that she saw him sitting with three strangers who “didn’t look as if they were having a good time.”  One reason the sheriff can’t find Jessup is because the sheriff is considered something of an outsider, whom the townspeople refuse to help.  Even Ree, who has ties to everyone in the community, has trouble finding out what happened.  When she finally finds out the truth (along with a wonderful extra bonus thrown in at the end), it only comes about because the community decides that she doesn’t deserve to lose the house over the sins of her father.  At least, that’s my interpretation, and the issue is left vague enough for any number of interpretations.

The two critical roles in this movie, that of Ree and Teardrop, are excellently cast.  Lawrence and Hawkes, in their scenes with each other especially, portray the complex relationships that exist between family members, and how love and hate for one’s kin can coexist, and be rectified by the latter melding into the former.  Teardrop may hate what his brother did, but Jessup was still his brother, and while he says he doesn’t want to know what happened to him, his real fear is that he will never know.

As Ree, Lawrence must carry most of the film, and carry it she does.  She is incredibly strong and resourceful for a seventeen-year-old.  Only when she feels that she has done all she can, but will still lose the house, does she plead, with her mother, to help her this one time.  Her mother, however, is beyond helping anyone.

Near the beginning of the movie, Ree tells Sonny, “Never ask for what ought to be offered.”  The funny thing is, she spends most of the movie asking for what ought to have been offered.  And what we are offered is a great film that is sometimes difficult to understand due to the accents.  And it wasn’t just me; several people next to me appeared to be having the same problem.  Not with every sentence, but just with certain words and parts of dialogue.  Of course, that’s more of a reason to see the film again, if anything.  In addition, the “progress” in the film seems to come by chance.  Probably more realistic this way, but I would have preferred a little more structure to the story.

In the Q & A session that followed, Debra Granik was joined onstage by her screenwriting collaborator, Anne Rosellini.

(l to r): Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, and a SIFF staff member
 (photo taken from the balcony)

Since the movie is based on a book by the same name (by Daniel Woodrell), the first question asked was what attracted them to the book.  They said the first thing that attracted them was Ree, since she is such a strong female character.  The second thing that attracted them was the details and descriptions of the area itself.  In fact, in response to another question, much of the film was shot in people’s homes, and the entire film was shot–for half the budget–in Missouri.  The only house that didn’t belong to a local was an abandoned building used for the interior shots of Ree’s house.
Some of the actors used in this film were from the Ozarks (I mentioned Lauren Sweester above, who acts as naturally as if she had been acting her whole life), but most were found through L.A. casting calls, including Jennifer Lawrence (who grew up in Kansas, and so understood a bit of that way of life, as well as the accent).  In fact, Lawrence was supposed to be joining us for the Q & A session, but perhaps she found a really good party to go to, instead (according to one movie-goer).
To make the film authentic, local props were used, either bought from local stores or borrowed from the locals.  In addition, the crew conferred with the locals and often added details to the script based on photos that they took there (including the trampoline shown at the beginning of the film).
This film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival and got an enthusiastic response here (the movie was packed, though that could also reflect the Seattle connection, people who knew the director would be there, and the fact that it showed at 7 pm on a Friday).  In fact, while waiting for the bus, a woman turned to me and said, “Wasn’t it good?”
Yes, it was good.  Even great.  But it fell short of fantastic.  4 out of 5.

3 thoughts on “SIFF, Week One: Winter’s Bone (United States, 2010, 95 mins)

  1. I envy the wintery weather. It's blazing hot here, forty plus. The movie plot seems quite complicated. I'm in the middle of Air Doll–so far, less than engrossing.

  2. I agree with you, it was like a 4.5/5. The performances outran the film, which was still very good, but not great. Much like the whole “Frozen River” debacle.

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