You can usually tell if a film knows the value of music from its beginning. Winter’s Bone opens majestically, announcing that we are watching a rural folktale rather than a realist study of rural poverty, with the sung words; “Down in old Missouri, I heard this melody…” Images of small children jumping on a trampoline, a house that looks like an oversized log cabin, discarded toys, gadgets and general detritus scattered here and there. The fading sky as seen through the leafless tops of trees. It is winter in the Ozarks.
Winter’s Bone is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, though it feels like something the Grimm Brothers might have written down if they did their work in the present. We follow Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she cooks and cares for her younger brother and sister, tries to engage her mentally ill mother and decides to give away a horse to a sympathetic neighbor. She is running the show, or what’s left of it; her father is a crystal meth dealer on the lam, leaving his family with nothing but the harsh mountains. Ree is informed that he has been ordered to appear in court in a few days on drug charges; if he does not make it, the whole family will lose the house. So Ree starts the careful, methodical process of tracking down her father. Everybody in this mountain community knows her, and she doesn’t entirely trust anybody. She speaks with her father’s drug-addled brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), but he is uncooperative. She tries to borrow a car from a husband of a friend, but he refuses. She eventually tracks down the house of the man who may know where her father is—or what became of him—but his paranoid, pale wife (Dale Dickey) kicks her off the property. This is a lead, but Ree will pay a price for returning to it. A wild, untamed folktale for sure, but it is at this point that it becomes clear that Winter’s Bone is also a detective story. Ree is one of the most clever and appealing sleuths in modern films and it is a major credit to the young actress Lawrence that we are willing to get to the bottom of this mystery with her.
The possibility of violence hangs over each encounter and each individual in Winter’s Bone, including Ree herself. One of the things that director Debra Granik realizes that no other contemporary filmmaker in this country knows is that the threat of violence is itself a form of poetry, and can be far more cinematic than actual violence. As Ree knocks on a door early in her investigation, wind chimes tingle in the air, suggesting that she has already gotten herself in over her head. As she approaches another house, shirts sway on clotheslines in the yard and some animal effigy sits on the gate, precipitating a spooky encounter (one of the most vital in the film). A burnt down meth lab becomes a place we are desperate to peer inside, yet we cringe at what may be in there. But aside from details such as these, Granik uses just as many details to convey depression and general collapse, both spiritual and economic. A toy horse that Ree’s brother and sister are fond of has implications of its own. Each of these details is photographed in a palette stunning enough for us to give a hats-off to both cinematographer Michael McDonough and digital technology in general. Every shot looks something like an Andrew Wyeth painting crossed with an old-fashioned landscape photograph. This is highly appropriate considering that Wyeth was another chronicler of the weirdness of the natural world and the isolation of people. It’s a look that has no precedent in films and there is no other way this film could have looked.
Although it knows the power of music, Winter’s Bone ultimately does not place enough trust in music. The use of backwoods country is both logical and beautiful, especially in one brief scene where Ree steps in to the house of an old lover of her father’s and stops to survey a group of musicians playing an old standby with a singer. She looks at them as if even she did not expect such art could enter this hideous existence, and moves on. The film could possibly use more scenes like this, because it too often resorts to the cliché of ambient noise when doom is about to approach, or psychological turmoil is occurring. Composer Dickon Hinchliffe tries to mix the two styles together, with some success. But one wishes the filmmakers placed more faith in pure homespun country music, in the same way that they place faith in pure detail.
Musical shortcomings are no real matter. This film is a delightfully strange bird. It pulls us deeper and deeper in to the darkness of the mountains and shows us more grim faces and communal distrust than we feel comfortable with. But it is not a pessimist’s film; not every single man turns out to be a brute and the simple American idea of persistence and good will does work out in Ree’s favor. This is a film that on the surface looks like a dark folk story, but it is more of a tunnel of observations with a light at the end. It looks utterly unrelated to the mystery genre, yet plays by that genre’s rules so diligently that it turns out to be one of the best mystery films we’ve come across in a while. Like all good mysteries, the mystery itself (which we know the solution to some two-thirds of the way through) becomes beside the point. The film even manages to end on a hopeful strum of a hand-me-down banjo. The melody is over.