First let me say that I liked Winter's Bone, the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name by Debra Granik, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, though I thought it needn't have been so sombre and depressing as it was. This was because the tone was not quite rightly judged, I think. Essentially, the movie gives us a woman's - if not quite an explicitly feminist - perspective on what is represented, probably with some accuracy, as the patriarchal male honor culture of the Missouri Ozarks. But the result is almost unremittingly grim and miserable and so runs the risk of compromising that accuracy by making it look too much like a feminist caricature. Although I have no idea of Ms Granik's political views, she could hardly have made a movie more dark and depressing if she occupied an honored place among the sternest sort of that's-not-funny! feminists.
There are some rather half-hearted attempts in the movie to lighten this darkness. In one or two scenes we see these wild mountain men forget their propensity for violence long enough to engage in music-making along with the women who, for the moment, cease looking depressed and resentful of their lot in life. But these scenes are not enough to add any significant shading of grey to an otherwise starkly black-and-white representation of this bleak and frightening world. The mountain-man's honor culture is doubtless a throwback and considerably debased from the time - only seventy years or so ago, as you can see from Howard Hawks's Sergeant York of 1941 - when it bore some relation to a national honor culture, but even today it would be an exaggeration to say that either the women or the men are prisoners of their ancient habits of clannishness and deference to paternal authority. The patriarchy could not have held on for so many centuries if it were the tyranny the feminists believe it to be. There must be good as well as bad in it.
There is a hint of this good, too, in the pride Ms Granik's heroine, 17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) takes in her family's honor when a bail bondsman (Tate Taylor) appears at her door to tell her that her father, Jessup, charged with "cooking" methamphetamines, has put their house up as bail and then disappeared. If he doesn't show up for his trial, she is told, she, her mother and siblings will lose their home. Ree, who has no income and whose mother is non compos mentis, is the only person able to look after her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and sister (Ashlee Thompson). Yet she has not the slightest doubt that her father must be dead or he would have showed up. "I'm a Dolly, bred and buttered, and that's how I know he's dead," she confidently says.
She is thus appealing to the same standard of honor of which she immediately becomes the victim. For when she turns for help in finding her father - or his body - to a succession of friends and relatives with little success, all assure her that there are powerful forces engaged in his disappearance, and she were best to shut up about it and submit to her fate. Gradually, we learn that Jessup has committed the unpardonable sin in this harsh and unforgiving world based on honor. He has informed on his fellow drug-manufacturers, including members of his own extended family, rather than go to jail. As Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) informs her, "He loved you all. That's why he went weak."
There, I think, the film puts a foot wrong. It seems most unlikely that, for some bizarre but unspecified reason, Jessup would have thought he could somehow escape the inevitable retribution that everyone else in the movie automatically assumes is the lot of the snitch. In real life, if he had put love for his family first he would have known that they would be better taken care of if he had gone to jail and kept his mouth shut. That, much more than the murder or intimidation of witnesses is why it is always so hard to get a conviction in these honor-based family businesses. All the same, I think it worth looking past this false rendering if you are fully to appreciate what the movie has to offer.
This is mainly its portrait of Ree, who is one of the most impressive female characters to be seen in the movies in recent years. She is heroic and yet entirely believable partly because she is not given to political preachments or judgments against the society in which she lives. Ree would not have been believable as a feminist revolutionary; instead, she is simply - simply! - a brave and determined young woman trying to keep her home and her family together in a world neither she nor we can imagine being other than it is. In doing so, she has to stand up to the hostility of the family patriarch, "Thump" Milton (Ronnie Hall), and the many other family members - including, at first, even her Uncle Teardrop - who are terrified of him and so win his and their grudging acceptance.
Teardrop is ultimately inspired by her example to his own possibly fatal defiance of the family code of honor and so helps to bring about a compromise solution to the problem of what is to be done about Jessup's family, albeit one involving yet more horror for Ree. Yet in some ways I think the movie would have been better if her singular bravery and strength of character had been just a little less singular and a little more like that of the honorable society as she imagines it to be when she explains her scarcely believable actions by repeating to the bail bondsman at the end that she is a Dolly "bred and buttered, like I told you."
James Bowman is the movie reviewer for the American Spectator.