The Nominated Film You May Have Missed: WINTER’S BONE
Not only the birth of star Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone is also a gritty, eagerly grim look at small-town, poverty-stricken America.
Every year, ten movies are bestowed the honor of becoming nominated by the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences. Many of those films will have already had various successes throughout the year – good festival attendance, box office success and the receiving of other prestigious awards. Yet, only one of them ends their evening being declared the best of the best.
Each month, I select one of these films that, while honored with a nomination, did not achieve the highest recognition – a film for your reconsideration. Bringing them back into the light and into the minds of viewers gives these films the chance to shine once again and reach a new group of people who may have never considered the film previously. This month, I have chosen a film that I feel missed the attention of many when it was at the height of its glory – a film that asks ‘What would you do to save your family?’
Set in a small impoverished area of Arkansas, Winter’s Bone, from director Debra Granik, follows a young woman’s fight to save her family. Yet, when examined deeper, the film forces viewers to witness the depravity of a culture controlled by drugs, the reality of what true family is, and what sacrifices need to be made in the name of family.
Winter’s Bone begins with a contrasting look of innocence versus poverty, scenes of two young children jumping on a trampoline, holding kittens and conducting skateboard lessons around their rundown home and property. This playful childhood folly quickly leads into daily chores, transitioning the focus to the eldest daughter Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), whose responsibilities shadow her youth – brushing her mother’s hair (caring for her mother), feeding her siblings, making decisions regarding their dog and what they can spare to feed him. Ree is the caretaker of this family and homestead – a responsibility that weighs heavily on her shoulders.
When Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) arrives on their property, Ree learns of her father’s current legal troubles – and the price they all will have to pay if he does not show for his court hearing. To make his bail, Ree’s father Jessup put their house and property up as collateral. With only days until the court hearing, and no sign or word from Jessup, the Sheriff has come to see if Ree has seen or heard anything from her father – and to alert them of all they are about to lose.
With no information to willingly give and no idea of her father’s whereabouts, Ree tells the Sheriff she will bring her father home, and sets out to track him down. She begins with the husband of her closest friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), who hasn’t seen or heard from him – his concern mostly focused on the drugs spread out across his living room table. This lack of knowledge becomes a common theme amongst all the homes Ree stops at to inquire about her father – no one has seen him. Eventually, stopping at the home of Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), a man feared by all, she is told to leave and never come back – there is no time for her or her questions, as they will only lead to witnesses.
With the arrival of the bondsman on her property, Ree knows that their time has run out – the bondsman relaying that she and her family have about 1-2 weeks to move off the property. With desperation setting in, Ree admits that she believes her father missed his court hearing because he is dead – a realization that she had only just come to understand moments earlier. Admitting that proof of his death would in fact save her family from homelessness, Ree has nothing to corroborate her claim as well as is unwilling to point fingers at any possible culprit – leaving her and her family with nothing.
Unable to face the reality of her dire situation, Ree, with the help of her Uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), begins to confront those she believes have the answers – not for restitution but for salvation. Yet, as she pushes herself closer to the truth – she discovers that in order to save her family and her home, she may have to make the biggest sacrifice of them all.
The Power of Gossip
One of the most intriguing topics displayed within Winter’s Bone is gossip – both the power and speed with which it travels. From the moment the Sheriff arrives on Ree’s front porch, everyone in the area is on alert – and knows that Ree will be visiting them to inquire about her father. One of the local women shows up at her door with food to help Ree feed the little ones, food that is used to to find out if Ree had said anything she shouldn’t have to the sheriff.
A day or so after Ree began her search, her neighbor (with whom she hadn’t discussed the situation with) arrives on her doorstep to take her to the answers she searches for. He drives her to the end of the road to show Ree that her father had died in a meth lab explosion a month or so earlier. While Ree is wise enough to know this is a lie, she is also smart enough to know that there are eyes watching her every move – and anything she says or does will be known by all those concerned.
Furthering the concept of gossip, and to prove the speed at which news travels, Teardrop shows up to stand for Ree after she has been taught a lesson for her unrelenting search of her father. Yet, Teardrop was not sent for – he took it upon himself to be there for his niece. He had heard of what was going down, and came, only from the gossip he had heard through the grapevine.
What is really fascinating about the concept of gossip in Winter’s Bone is the speed and the distance it travels. Homes are not next to one another, with acres separating each destination that Ree has to travel to. Word spreads faster than wildfire, and faster than Ree can move on foot. Everyone knows and is willing/ready to act, long before she reaches them and long before she can formulate a plan herself.
This Is Not A Woman’s World
Ree is an anomaly within this film and within the town – she cares for her mother, her home and her siblings, with no man to help her out. Ree must run the home both as a provider, a caretaker and a decision maker. Yet this is not always the case for the other women within this town.
Starting her search at the home of her best friend, she is greeted at the door by her friend Gail and welcomed in. Yet, she does not enter and waits outside until her friend’s husband welcomes her into the home. Asking Gail whether she could borrow her husband’s truck, Ree is denied her request because the husband does not feel like it. Ree reminds her friend how that wouldn’t have stopped her in the past, to which her friend responds “It’s different when you’re married”.
As Ree’s situation is reaching the point of no return and all seems hopeless, one of the neighbors stop by the house offering to take Sonny (Isaiah Stone), Ree’s little brother, in order to help ease her burden. They offer to raise him as their own – and maybe one day when she is a little older they might be able to take Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), the younger sister, as well. While the offer was for the future, it was just that, an offer that Ree knows will never come to fruition as she tells her friend that Ashlee “doesn’t shine for them.”
Furthering the role of women in this film when Ree is beaten in retaliation for her unrelenting search, it is the women who are left to do the dirty work, inflicting this painful lesson on Ree. The woman are left to get their hands dirty – warding off trouble for their husbands. In this way, the blame will always fall to the woman, leaving the hands of the men clean and without responsibility.
The Sacrifice of Family
Sacrifice is a central part of Winter’s Bone – without it, the core of this story would never have worked. Early on in the film, viewers see Ree peering into classroom windows, her longing for children and the chance to join the army the equivalent to window shopping. She can look and imagine – but she can never have it. She has sacrificed her dreams to take on a harder challenge of caring for her mother and raising her two younger siblings.
Yet, dreams are not the only sacrifices Ree makes. Ree is willing to sacrifice herself, quite literally at times, to ensure that her family has a roof over their heads. In the face of homelessness and destitution, Ree is willing to push against those that would keep hidden the information she needs to save her family. She is unafraid to keep asking, knowing that continued secrecy would be her failure. She is willing to sacrifice herself, body and mind, in order to solidify a proper foundation for her family to grow – a home.
While Ree is a willing sacrifice in the face of destitution, Teardrop is the character within this film that transitions into becoming a self-sacrificing individual. When he is first introduced earlier in the film, he apologizes to Ree for not being there – asking her if she believes he forgot them. All he is willing to give her is some money and advice: stay away from Thump and don’t bother looking for your father.
While Teardrop is unwilling to sacrifice in the beginning of this film, he slowly transforms into the family man Ree needs. Following her beating, he shows up uninvited to speak for Ree – sacrificing his freedom, as any mistake she makes will be brought down on him. He keeps her close, taking her with him in search of information regarding the whereabouts of his brother – she no longer has to search alone. Knowing that finding out this information could bring harm to himself, Teardrop sacrifices his safety to help ensure Ree’s.
A Star Is Born
When I think of Winter’s Bone, I am instantly brought back to the 2011 Academy Awards, where the film garnered a Best Picture nomination. Yet, it was the nomination for Best Actress that would peak my interest in this film. The clip selected to showcase Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was a scene following Ree’s brutal beating by the woman of the town. She was absolutely captivating, nailing this performance in every way – an entire performance perfectly summed up within this 30-second showcase.
Instantly, this young unknown actress shot to the top of my must-see list – as well as the list of other critics who had seen this film. Receiving praise and outstanding recognition for this role, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance placed her at the top of everyone’s “Actors to watch” lists. While she did not win for her performance in Winter’s Bone, she would receive her second (of four!) Oscar nominations and first win for Silver Linings Playbook – as well as perfectly encompassing the role of the unwillingly rebellious Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy.
Winter’s Bone is a brilliantly executed film that focuses on the question – “What would you do to save your family?”. Following a young woman’s journey to do just that, we learn that some secrets are fueled by unrelenting gossip – and that the truth may require sacrifice. Lead by the outstanding performance of then newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone is a film that is not to be missed – and not to be taken lightly.
What do you think of Winter’s Bone?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.