Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Here’s the last in the wildly acclaimed series on the Oscar-nominated sad movies of 2010. (Winter’s Bone earned four nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress [Jennifer Lawrence], Best Supporting Actor [John Hawkes] and Best Adapted Screenplay.) Remember to look for the first annual Taste My Sad Oscar Sadstravaganza, coming to a computer screen or smartphone near you this SUNDAY. I have apologized in advance to the Oscar folks under the assumption that no one will need to actually watch the show after reading my take. Sorry guys.
Category: Sad movie about The Mountains. This great country of ours famously has its share of purple mountains’ majesties. (Note: Maybe they’re purple underneath all the trees and snow and such, but I have never seen a purple mountain. Purple hills, sure, but not purple mountains.) They’re quite beautiful to look at in calendars and on nature programs. Often times we flatlanders will vacation in the mountains and enjoy the log cabins and fireplaces and hot chocolate and horrific skiing accidents. Then, of course, there’s the mountain climbing set, who often find themselves trapped next to a rock or jumping over a 30-foot-wide crevasse. (STALLONE.)
But here we’re talking about The Mountains, which are entirely different. The Mountains are INTENSE. They’re mysterious and dark and secretive, with lots of trees and fog and steep curves in the road (when there even are roads!) and such. It’s hard to travel through them, it’s easy to hide within them, and it’s REALLY easy to manufacture and consume lots of cheap drugs in them. And the people! Well… you all know how I hate to offend, so let me tread carefully here: There are lots of nice people in The Mountains who are friendly and like playing the banjo and don’t fulfill the stereotypes. There are also lots of disgusting drug-addled redneck Neanderthals. You take the good with the bad. Oh also the air is thinner. So pretty much an entirely different world than the relatively civilized (sub)urbia to which so many of us are accustomed. (Winter’s Bone is set in the Ozarks, which apparently feature little of interest to non-Mountain People outside of
Bronson Branson, Missouri.)
Generally movies about The Mountains aren’t strictly sad, but more depressing/disturbing. Obviously we wouldn’t describe such films as Deliverance and Wrong Turn as being “sad.” But those movies are about outsiders who get off on the wrong foot with The Mountain People and are terrorized accordingly. If I’m not mistaken, Winter’s Bone is entirely about The Mountain People, and I’m sure these People are capable of being sad (or depressed, at the very least) on their own terms.
My familiarity with this issue: FsOTB will recall that I recently spent a year in The Mountains, as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in wild and wonderful/open for business West Virginia. I met some lovely people and had some fun times, but a lot of the time couldn’t help but feel very out of place. To be fair, I stuck out like a sore thumb: I talked differently, I rooted openly for the Yankees at the local tavern, and at the time I did not own one flannel shirt. (I've since rectified the flannel situation, HIPSTERS.) Being different from the local folks wasn't always bad or jarring, but… well one time FOTB Micah Lubens was visiting, and in the evening we went to the gas station to purchase some libations. A couple of gentlemen entered the gas station and told the cashier that they had just seen a body lying face down in a ditch nearby. They were unsure if the person was dead or alive. The cashier seemed unperturbed at this. After a few minutes’ discussion, one of the two men said, “Well, it’s OK, we’re partying with the deputy,” and then they left. This all happened.
The biggest stereotype of people who live in The Mountains is probably that they are inbred. Of course this is unfair; they can’t all possibly be inbred, or else there wouldn’t be Hatfields AND McCoys. But then again… well this other time I was at work, talking to the town's sheriff and some of the folks who worked at the office, and the conversation came around to a local family who had a reputation for being inbred. The sheriff told me that if this family saw you driving by their house, they’d come out and hiss at you, like snakes. He also told me that the son in this family had a genetic deformity such that his eyes were on the sides of his head, like a walleye fish. He said, “that boy could stand on the railroad tracks and see a train coming from either direction.” This also happened. (I never investigated this any further, by the way. But if it's possible to be more scared of hissing noises than I was before I heard that story, after hearing it I sure was.)
Obviously I know Appalachia is different than the Ozarks, and anecdotal evidence like that doesn’t make it right to generalize about All Of The Mountains, but you asked me what my familiarity with this issue was, and I did the best I could. I’ve never even tried meth!
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Ree Dolly is a seventeen year old teenager raising her younger brother and sister in the Ozarks while her father was in prison. Her father is now on parole and has disappeared. Ree soon learns he has put their house up for his bail bond and it will be taken from them if he does not show up to court. Ree is forced to go against the hillbilly community to find out the truth about her father.” I love the use of the term "hillbilly community," like they have lobbyists and stuff. I'd thought that people in West Virginia disliked the term until I was speaking to someone about the Appalachian Festival, a town fair-type thing with lots of different booths and free stuff, and the woman called it "Hillbilly Halloween."
What I thought of the movie: Well that was one bleak film. It’s simple and straightforward and not contrived and real authentic. That last one is particularly impressive: it achieves the difficult task of feeling real to an audience that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the film’s setting. We kind of get it right away: the movie is good at showing and not telling. It’s about poor people, often cruel, drugged-out people, who generally act in their self-interest and sometimes get really pissed off when people stick their nose where it don’t belong. We don't agree or even like a lot of the characters in the movie, but we kind of understand them.
Ree, played by the awesome Jennifer Lawrence, is a really tight character: courageous and independent and not always sure of what to do. Her uncle, played by the also awesome John Hawkes, is real bad-ass. These are cool, interesting, not messianic characters to watch and get to know and root for. And while the movie is pretty focused on Ree’s quest to find her dad, there’s some other great stuff to fill in the blanks too. Of particular note to me was a scene where Ree, who we often forget is a 17-year-old girl, goes to see an Army recruiter. He senses her desperation and the complexity of her terrible situation, but it’s all just so understated and exactly how that conversation would go. There’s all this desperation hiding just underneath the surface of this girl, dealing with way more than anyone her age should have to deal with, but the movie totally doesn’t overplay it at all. Man it’s a good movie.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: As mentioned before, I do kind of feel like Jean-Luc Picard/Locutus of Borg here, having been assimilated and then brought back from the other side the way that I have. Like Picard, I’m occasionally haunted by the memories of The Mountains, particularly those times when I briefly came into contact with people that resemble some of the villainous types in this film. (I don't have as much to say about my experiences with these people, but I will direct your attention to the blog People of Walmart.) After seeing the movie, I compared those characters to the evil sisters in The Fighter, ugly people with uglier personalities, so proud of being the sort of people that they should be ashamed of being. God it made me mad, and being so mad at them made me mad, too, because in the end they’re people like you and me, who were babies once and didn’t mean to turn out the way they did. Added to which is the fact that many of them are torn up by drugs and all that. Maybe it’s not fair, but goddammit these hillbillies are allowed to VOTE. The thought of merely sharing the blessings of democracy with them makes me mad and starts the whole vicious cycle all over again.
Corollary to this point: the geographic and cultural isolation of this community made me think about their relationship with the anti-government lunatics in the Tea Party. In some cases, The Mountain People are even more radical than the general Tea Party, which I think is a practical function of how isolated they are from the government, and how much seething hatred they have for government interference into their way of life. (The recent tragedy in West Virginia is just another example of this long-standing trend.) It's really reflected in the movie too: the antipathy towards "the law," outsiders, even insiders they don't like/aren't related to. It's a real get-off-my-lawn mentality, and it's pretty scary. If you hang out in the woods, isolated from the rest of the world for long enough, you might start doing/thinking some crazy things. Just look at Ted
Corollary to the corollary: what really sunk in while watching this movie is how inaccessible the American dream (whatever that actually means) is to these people, especially Jennifer Lawrence and her siblings, who are young and cool and generally untouched by all the ugliness around them. Her one escape route (for monetary reasons, primarily, but also to just get away from all the heaviness) is the Army, which, while very noble, is also fraught with its own difficulties. And she can’t even do that. There’s no college in sight, no lucrative/pointless office job, just killing squirrels and fending off “the law." PLUS taking care of younger siblings! If I had to take care of SOTB Lauren Krizel when I was 17, it would have started with me calling her "Loafy" for a while and ended with us hitting each other until one of us got hurt and ran away. That's no way to raise a kid.
How I felt after the movie ended: The release of all the #tension was kind of a relief. It’s hard to say whether I think this movie qualifies as a “sad movie,” under the not very strict strictures that I’ve been occasionally working under in this blog. But whether or not the plot is as sad as that of Beaches or not is kind of immaterial. The movie makes you ponder some really depressing stuff, how people survive in an economically depressed region when they have been surrounded by terrible shit their whole lives, without strong parental guidance and all that. How you or I might have ended up just like them, or probably worse, if we were born into their situations. Bleak stuff. So I think it counts. And even if it doesn’t, it’s on the blog now. Officially sad.