“Now the district Attorney said he might have forgiven/ You had lots of reasons to turn out that way/ But you’ll both go to jail for them four little babies/ You made and delivered along the way/
Last night you had a dream about a lord so forgiving/ He might show compassion on a heathen he damned/ You awoke in a jail cell alone and so lonely/ Seven Years in Michigan…
The Deeper In, The Drive By Truckers.
There’s something about works about the South, and southern writers in general. In Southern literature the wounds run deeper, and the pain from them hits the marrow.
The Southern Gothic is perhaps the hardest form to write in. At its best, it simply is the best that American literature has to offer; The Faulkners, O’Conners, Mc Cartheys, Capotes, Percys, Twains, Williams, Lees, and Morrisons, all sons and daughters of the southern vernacular.
At its worst the Southern Gothic becomes a kind of car wreck. Devolving into a honkey faced minstrel show. Displaying a grotesque mixture of poverty porn and the implicit smug moral superiority of the viewer over the smug brain dead hicks on display like petting zoo animals. Or as Noel Murray so succinctly summed it up, “yet another set of college dropouts in nudie suits and bolo ties, singing songs about mining disasters in affected accents.”
While it’s always a slippery slope playing the card of “authenticy” particularly as I'm not from the region in question. But there is perhaps no style in which its absence is more immediately noticeable then the southern one.
This is all my long winded way of saying that Winter’s Bone is definitely NOT one of those pathetic works. It’s a bone hard film, weary, with a bruised heart that stands as one of the greatest crime films in the past decade (which has been a damn good one for crime films) one of the greatest works of the southern gothic in the same time period, and as far as I’m concerned the best film of the year.
The story of a Ree, young girl basically the head of her family given that her mother is insane, and her father has disappeared with no one really expecting him to turn up again. This would be less of a problem had her father not made his last act to sign over their house as collateral for his bond. And as his court date approaches it seems more and more likely that they’ll be turned out of their house, where for all the talk of southern hospitality, it looks as if their friends and neighbors will more or less leave them to die.
But the girl’s smart and tough, a survivor. So she goes searching for her father, or at least what remains of him. Asking increasingly dangerous questions of increasingly dangerous people, as we the audience sit there helpless, the bottom dropping out of your stomach a little more with each encounter.
Winter’s Bone is one of those movies that etches its characters and place in sharp unforgettable detail. The mountain of the woman who sings faux obliviously while Ree questions her Father’s mistress, every other eye in the room upon her. The new garage door that shuts on an old barn in a shot that feels like the end of hope. The burned husks of trailers and cars that dot the landscape. The film knows what it’s talking about.
It’s a character driven movie, and a damned good one, people who get one line (“If you have something to say. Now’s the time to say it.”) are deeper drawn then the main characters of most films. And the ones who are actually invested in, like Ree’s Uncle Teardrop; the greatest dead eyed, lunatic, ax wielding, tweaker anti hero you’re likely to come across this side of Under The Dome, are simply unforgettable. Teardrop, played by John Hawkes, in the performance of the year as one of the most complex, fascinating characters I've seen in a movie in ages. He looks like the rotting corpse of Harry Dean Stanton, acts with the frazzled half sparked, perversely logical, thinking of a real meth head, and is motivated by a love as genuine as it is profoundly fucked up. If Hawkes doesn’t win an Oscar, which he won’t because he’s you know a fifty year old character actor not a movie star, it really will prove the system a more or less complete sham.
But even he pales in comparison to Ree. I can’t remember the last time I became so invested in a character. The night before I saw Winter’s Bone I saw Machete, during which I saw heads chopped off, intestines used as rappel ropes, and gun shot wounds without number, all generating no more reaction then, “Well that looked neat.” If anything Winter’s Bone proved that I am not desensitized to violence, merely its presentation, because there’s a scene here in which a cup of lukewarm water is thrown in Ree’s face, and I damn near screamed in the theater.
Winter’s Bone is one of those movies, that makes you realize just how assembly line, borderline worthless, and lazy, most other films are.