American Independent Gothic: Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

Posted by John Berra on January 22, 2011 in Dr John Berra, Guest Blog tagged with ,

The final stop on the American Independent Gothic tour is Ozarks, Missouri. You must be back on the bus in two hours. The driver will not come to find you. I repeat…the driver will not come to find you.

The Ozarks Mountains is a vast highland region of the central United States that not only covers the Southern half of Missouri, but also extends into north-central Arkansas, north-eastern Oklahoma and south-eastern Kansas. Most available guides to the region make note of the fact that Ozarks is actually a plateau rather than a mountain range, but it has become known as Ozarks Mountains due to the deep dissections that run through the area, giving it a mountainous appearance. The local tourist board is obviously keen to promote the outdoors activities associated with the region (hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking) in addition to its natural attractions (caves, lakes, rivers), so it would be understandable if they decided against arranging any screenings of Debra Granik’s unsettling thriller Winter’s Bone for first-time visitors to the area. In this superb slice of Southern Gothic – concisely adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel – local hospitality is replaced by local hostility, and even those who have lived in the region since birth can be treated as outcasts if they fall out of step with the unwritten rules of a closed society. By choosing to work within the literary traditions of Southern Gothic, rather than following in the footsteps of its often overwrought cinematic lineage, Winter’s Bone presents a world where the men have names like ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Thump’, while the women band together like witches and gossip spreads like wildfire. Comparisons can be made between Winter’s Bone and other recent independently-produced rural thrillers like Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories (2007) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008) in that Granik’s film is also concerned with economic desperation and fractured family ties.  However, the deeply disquieting mood of Winter’s Bone actually has more in common with the sparse atmospherics of such excellent Americana albums as Sixteen Horsepower’s Folklore (2002) and Laura Veirs’ Carbon Glacier (2004) in that the director is less concerned with social realism than she is with evoking the strangeness of a place where the people are as unforgiving as the landscape.
Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in a justifiably acclaimed performance) is the eldest child in an impoverished Ozark family that is not so much living as surviving in their remote mountain cabin; Ree accepts the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of her younger brother and sister, not to mention a mother who is exists in a medication-induced haze due to an unspecified trauma. Her father, Jessup, is a methamphetamine cook with an operation that is part of a wider regional network of drug production and distribution, meaning that his community ties are as deeply-rooted as they are mortally dangerous. After being arrested, Jessup has put the family house and its surrounding 300 acres of land – most of which is valuable virgin forest – up as bond in order to make bail, but then disappeared without informing his family of the price they will have to pay for his reluctance to face jail time. Ree learns of the situation when Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) pays her a visit to ask if she knows where her father is hiding and is subsequently forced to deal with the fact that, if Jessup does not make his court date in seven days, the family will be left broke and homeless with her brother and sister heading to either a foster home or the house of their drug-snorting relatives. As most of the people who reside in the county are associated with – or related to – her father, Ree makes her way around the neighbours to enquire about his whereabouts, but none of them are particularly helpful because, as one explains, ‘talking just causes witnesses.’ Most of these locals are connected to crystal meth kingpin Thump Milton (William White) and their tight-knit community has come to constitute a backwoods criminal conspiracy that cares little for the plight of the Dolly family. Reluctant assistance is eventually offered by Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, delivering a master-class in minimalism), an ex-convict who cooks speed and carries a shotgun, yet has a sufficient sense of decency beneath his angry exterior to want to prevent his extended family from being turned out into the woods.
Discussing the subject of Gothicism in the 2002 collection The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements and Motifs, Molly Boyd states that Southern Gothic is, ‘characterized by grotesque characters and scenes, explorations of abnormal psychological states, dark humour, violence, a sense of alienation or futility’ and this summarises the cast of characters that populate Winter’s Bone. Ree’s neighbours and relatives are unhelpful, unpleasant and unsociable, with both the men and the women being prone to sudden outbursts, while Ree is effectively ostracized from the Ozark community once she starts asking for favours that seem perfectly reasonable to the uninitiated. Boyd notes that one of the many myths of southern society to be utilised by southern Gothic literature is that of, ‘an inbred lower class living in extreme isolation in closed communities, which are plagued by economic impoverishment, educational ignorance, religious fundamentalism, racial intolerance, genetic deformities, perverted sexuality, and unrequited violence.’ Although this suggests the ‘hillbilly horror’ of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (2003), Granik maintains a steady balance between southern myth and starkly-realised social reality; Ree puts herself in danger by daring to navigate the incestuous networks of the local community while the communal erosion caused by the cooking and usage of cheap drugs is evident in the lack of social standards and the sudden mood swings of the men who are snorting too much of their own product. Even though Teardrop becomes Ree’s ally, he remains a largely unpredictable and unknowable presence, attacking Ree when she first asks for his help, but later allowing a gesture of tenderness when she touches him on the shoulder. Boyd observes that, ‘A sense of horror is often evoked in the reader’s perception that these characters not only accept their limitations but also sometimes promote these social ills as their best characteristics.’ Teardrop is proud of his propensity for rage, threatening to let rip with his shotgun when he is pulled over by Sheriff Baskin with the result of their confrontation revealing that he has assumed authority over local law enforcement.
All of these Southern Gothic ambiguities and eccentricities are effectively anchored by the clearly-realised narrative, which is essentially a ‘missing person’ case with Ree circling the criminal conspiracy until her perseverance eventually results in the truth being revealed and a communal compromise being reached. Ree’s investigation takes the form of a series of encounters with her father’s associates who try to mislead her with erroneous information, or convince her that Jessup is dead by taking her to a burnt-out meth-lab and claiming that the ‘cook’ made a mistake in the ‘kitchen’. There are a few kindly characters on the periphery of the action (a neighbour who comes bearing deer meat and wood, a bounty hunter who can see that Ree is stuck between a rock and a hard place), but the most of the community scrambles to protect the crystal meth business that is keeping food on their tables. The most shocking scene is an attempt by a gang of Ozark women – led by the wife of Thump Milton – to physically dissuade Ree from her search, a task that is carried out with the severity of a lynch mob. At times, Granik may seem to be emphasising the tightly-wound narrative over character or location, but Winter’s Bone is the kind of pared-down experience in which quietly telling details are part of the wider framework; relatives who offer a line of coke as a social greeting, the Sherriff who speaks to everyone as if they are a criminal, and Ree determinedly trudging across the landscape, or shooting and skinning a squirrel so her siblings can eat are just some of the moments that at once root the film in reality while suggesting an  off-kilter, otherworldly environment that is far removed from the rest of America. To some extent, Ree is an audience surrogate, a morally responsible guide through treacherous rural terrain. However, she is also as much of a product of her environment as the people that stand in her way, and it is her unwavering courage in the face of adversity that makes her the Gothic heroine of this Ozark County odyssey.

That concludes our tour of American Independent Gothic. The bus will drop you back at the central depot and I wish you all a safe journey home. Please remember, the driver’s tip is not included in the fare.

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