America’s backwoods are a location of intrigue, and within the past five years independent American films have provided some fine explorations of the lay of the land. Lance Hammer’s Ballast (2008) followed adolescent James through the lonely Mississippi delta, as he comes to terms with his father’s suicide. The film was as much a love letter to the area as it was a study of the poverty and desolation facing it’s inhabitants. Kelly Reichardt’s Oldjoy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) capture two very different sentiment’s of two very similar landscapes – that of mystery and hope, as well as an expansive futility.
Winter’s Bone continues exploring the latter , with Ree (Jennifer Leigh) searching for her Father who has placed her and her siblings’ house as bond for the bail he has just jumped. At the beginning we see Ree observing two school classes; child care and military training. As she peers through the window to each, it captures her inability to conform to either road set out ahead of her, much like the southern states inability to match the prospering coastlines which cushion it. The Ozark location provides more than a menacing backdrop, but almost comprises part of the characters themselves; either as caring Christianly neighbors or self-ruling brutes.
Reviews of Winter’s Bone have cited it as a masterpiece of contemporary American film making, caught somewhere between a thriller and a family drama. Director Debra Granik has a clear skill for building tension, but the events of the film are dealt with so matter of factly that it dulls any shock for the spectator. The nihilistic realism can only leave you in agreement with the turn of events, contemplating that this is life, this happens, and there is no other way about it. It doesn’t promote southern state stereotypes, but neither does it turn anything on its head. We can just imagine the Palin 2012 poster in the kitchen windows, and this, is somehow worse. There may not be an axe-wielding maniac or a comedic hick, but there is a society operating unto themselves, who are no more economically able to move onwards, as they are unwilling to. By the time we reach the titular ‘Bone’, the scene is void of any emotion or climax, simply an immense sympathy with Ree and the uncertain fate which awaits her. This Oscar season has brought us a much lauded Firth, Portman and a lot of Rudin, but it seems even Winter’s Bone has been succeptible to undue hype.