Her name is Ree Dolly, and her address is Winter’s Bone.

As a movie, Winter’s Bone is the kind that kills chatter, providing the deep, disturbing pleasures of American gothic. It was filmed within an Ozark community — that’s hillbillies, bluegrass country, finger-plucking banjos. Ah, banjos … we know where that is:

And, pedantically, we’d be wrong. Deliverance, source of the duelling banjos, was set in Georgia in the deep South, three or four states east and south of the Ozarks in midwestern Missouri. We get a little closer to home in this next bit of Hollywood stardust:

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The Cohen brothers’ period picaresque in depression Mississippi, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, draws on folk songs for gravitas — Man of Contant Sorrow, among others (like O Death: ‘O Death, won’t you spare me over til another year’), but is a cheerfully ironic, filtered slurp of yeeha-Americana. Staying cheerfully ironic, jaunty even, we get still closer to the bone in this familiar satire of hillbillies and Hollywood:

…they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly/(Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars). Lucky Jed Clampett of Arkansas (southern part of the Ozarks), he shot up some crude … oil that is, black gold, Texas tea. But recall the sobering, pre-lucky strike opening lines:

Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed

Winter’s Bone is about trying to keep your family fed and a roof over their heads. About not giving in to despair or fear. About how a remarkable young woman becomes a heroine. And, as if in rebuke to all the noisy plucking and balladeering above, it begins with a stark voice, “that high lonsesome sound”: Way down in Missouri, where I heard this melody…

A feminist heroine, a wicked witch

reeThe chief reason I was keen to see Winter’s Bone was catching a glimpse of its heroine in a trailer, which confirmed an inkling gained from skimming reviews defensively (you don’t want to find out too much; something that won’t happen here) — Ree Dolly is an almost-plain, scrubbed beauty who carries herself with a stubborn but vulnerable grace. (Jennifer Lawrence, a teenage cross between Naomi Watts and Renee Zellweger.)

I knew, we all did, that this was going to be an unsettling, perhaps frightening movie. It commences under a grey mountain sky with a single voice floating a folk ballad, which somehow promised worse to come. But as soon as we saw Ree and her siblings, and how she handled the arrival of bad news, it was inevitable we should accompany her willingly to the end, bitter or not. (And the eventual climax bites like a winter lake.)

Raising his hat, and the roof, the New Yorker‘s David Denby goes so far as to conclude: She’s not just the most interesting teenager around, she’s more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we’ve seen peacocking through movies recently. In its lived-in, completely non-ideological way, “Winter’s Bone” is one of the great feminist works in film.

The story, briefly: 17-y-o Ree Dolly is the carer of her two young siblings, Sonny (around 12) and Ashlee (about 7), and their near catatonic mother. The sheriff calls by to say that her father has signed over the house as bail bond, that if he doesn’t show at court in a week their house is forfeit. Sheriff: Do you folk have anywhere to go? Contradicted once, Ree replies with terse necessity: I said, I’ll find him.

merabRee treks around to kith and kin (oddly enough, most are related) begging for a lead. But everyone is involved in cooking crank — crystal meth — including her missing father, and no one will break the code, give him up to the law. The hard-to-meet crime boss is Thump Milton — his witchy wife Merab shouts at Ree later, in angry exasperation: Why did you come back? I already warned you off nice. Nice is rough, not nice is really rough.

Merab (Dale Dickey, right) is an unfathomable fusion of murder and mother, witch and warden. Like all the women in this story, Merab guards, and defers to, her men, but she seems the final, undeniable force. The screen crackles every time she appears.

Ree had played her only card earlier, Aren’t we all supposed to be kin? To which, her uncle Teardrop: I already told you to shut up with my mouth. The implied violence is one of many shocks.

The “poetry” of country people: She don’t shine for them.

The sudden emergence of Winter’s Bone with all its qualities has unnerved US critics (see the last par at the link). But an aberrant dissent is posted by the pungent Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, ex-Salon). Her review is titled:

Winter’s Bone a Little Too Pleased With its Own Folky Bleakness

Zacharek mocks: It doesn’t help that the language that flows out of their mouths often sounds less like the way people really talk than like screenwriter-ese. Explaining to her best friend why a neighboring family is willing to adopt Sonny but not Ashlee, Ree says, “She don’t shine for them.” Oh, those country people, with their simple ways! Poetry flows from their lips even when they aint a-lookin’.

trioThen again, Daniel Woodrell, the author of the novel Winter’s Bone, on which the film is based “very closely,” merely grew up and lives in the Ozarks, so what would he know of local diction? (The Guardian’s appreciation of the book.) Woodrell calls his novels country noir and from a group of people grudging with their words, this film offers a swag of memorable quotes, dense with feeling:

More than once, Ree makes the plea: Aren’t we all supposed to be kin?

When Sonny suggests wistfully that they ask their neighbours for some of the deer being butchered, Ree says flatly: Never ask for what ought to be offered.

When Ree first approaches the witchy Merab for help, Merab inquires with disdainful sympathy: Ain’t you got no men to do this?

She don’t shine for them.

teardrop(There’s a line in the Beverly Hillbillies ballad: Then one day he was shooting for some food.) In their extremity Ree goes squirrel hunting, pragmatically bringing along her siblings to show how it’s done. Luck for once on their side, they bag three and she makes them help skin and gut the carcasses. Pulling them out, Sonny squeamishly asks if they will eat the intestines. Enjoying the luck, Ree says: Not yet.

Ree, stating her defiant bona fides: I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered.

Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, right) doesn’t take kindly to Ree shopping her father, his little brother, to the law: Choice is up to the one going to jail, not you!

I already told you to shut up with my mouth.

Ree dreams of escaping her responsibilities, of sharing the ordinary lives of the kids at the high school she walks longingly through. Or to enlist for a wage and deliverance; at one point, Sonny asks her sadly if she’s going to run away, as it were, to the army. Ree reassures him with all the native poetry of country folk: I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.

“A fulfillment of realism’s promise”

There are good reasons not to see Winter’s Bone. Dark, forbidding and grim, and that’s just the landscape. The story is unrelenting, as noir often is (but then, the suspense is taut all the way to the end). The mean limits — the self-deprivation of the Ozarks folk, their determined turning away from the world beyond, from consumer society, any society, is fascinating, but testing to witness — they are like the dark shadow of the Amish. And violence fills the air though it comes rarely when it does, it’s brief, but abrupt and appalling.

But there are better ones to go. Not my favourite critic, David Denby says something sharp and telling: The Ozarks are a world so little known to most of us that the physical details seem a revelation, a fulfillment of realism’s promise to show us what we have never seen or noticed before.

Grimly handsome and unfussy (the entire budget was all of $2 million), filmed with local Ozarks folk in their home country, Winter’s Bone is realism at its most revelatory, showing us convincingly something new. (There is a scene of what looks like an actual family group making music — banjo, guitar, a boy playing fiddle, a woman singing — it’s beautiful.) It’s also the realism of Teardrop’s and Merab’s kinetic, unpredictable characters. The realism of Sonny’s and Ashlee’s faith in their older sister. The realism of intimate intimidation, and of unforseen kindnesses. And it’s the realism of Ree Dolly, who is now a vivid reality — as real as Mockingbird‘s Scout, as real as Scarlett O’Hara.

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