Winter in the Woods

Winter’s Bone, 2010

I stumbled across this film mid Twin Peaks obsession (Sheryl Lee has a bit part) and I was amazed at the number of awards it had been nominated for/won.  Amongst its numerous accolades Winter’s Bone was nominated for four academy awards including best picture, and won two awards at the Sundance Film festival.  With such credentials setting the bar quite high I decided to give it go.

 

Filmed in rural Missouri Winter’s Bone transports you to a harsh and unforgiving environment, much like the locals who inhabit it. The people here are poor and life is far from easy. Seventeen year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has her hands full taking care of her young brother and sister and mentally ill mother. Ree’s father is on bail for cooking up meth amphetamines and has gone missing. The local sheriff drops by to tell Ree that the family house has been put up as part of the bond for bail, and if her father does not show up for the trial then the house will be repossessed. In a desperate attempt to hold the family together and save what little they have Ree sets out to track down her father. This proves be both dangerous and difficult. Jessup Dolly has got himself mixed up with a cast of local criminals and they are not keen to reveal his whereabouts lest their own dodgy dealings attract some unwanted attention.

Jennifer Lawrence is fabulous as Ree (this is deservingly reflected in award nominations). We are drawn into Ree’s struggle, desperation and the real helplessness of her situation. Her ambition is to join the army, and in one scene she sits down to discuss this with a recruitment officer. With a black eye and a swollen lip she asks tentatively about the $40,000 she would receive for enlisting but is dismayed when she discovers that this would not be paid for some time. She is also too young to enlist and her missing father and vacant mother would not be able to sign for her. The recruiter suggests that perhaps it is better to stay at home and deal with the problems there. It is upsetting that Ree’s life is governed entirely by duty and responsibility; every action she takes is something that she has no choice in, even if it puts her life in danger. She has no real control, but is caught up in the forces around her. The frustration that surrounds not being able to find her father sinks into every aspect of her life; she is trapped in an impossible situation.

The choice of location out in the woods is interesting. Ree teaches her younger siblings how to shoot and skin squirrels. We also see her chopping wood at various points. Out in the woods everyone seems to be self reliant, something that is a strong trait in Ree. While skinning squirrels she instructs her bother to pull out the guts, and when he protests she forces his hands, telling him that he must learn not to be afraid of such things. This scene is paralleled later when Ree is taken out to a lake to cut the hands off her father’s body and is told that she must pull them out of the water. She is physically shaking while pulling them out of the water and you understand that Ree feels that she has no choice but to this and must face up to reality. She is reluctant to ask for help from anyone believing that she can, or should deal with problems alone. There is also the uneasy feeling that out in the sticks the locals are rather keen to take the law into their own hands, and at various points I was sure that even the self reliant Ree was about to get kidnapped, shot, raped or otherwise swallowed up by the undergrowth.

In the end things turn out sort of ok, but you can’t escape feeling that Ree is a good person who has been dealt a bad hand and it is going to be a constant struggle for her to make the best of it. Did Winter’s Bone deserve its accolades? Yeah, I think so; don’t expect it to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy though.

Trivia tidbit: Sergeant Russell Schalk, who played the army recruiter, is a real life recruitment officer for the army. Jennifer Lawrence asked him in character questions as Ree and he responded as he would to real applicants.

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