Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter's Bone

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

This 2010 film mirrors what Truman Capote wanted to achieve with In Cold Blood, which was to show an underside of America that most citizens don’t know much about, and would rather not see. Director Debra Granik adapted the story for the screen from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, and she presents life in the Ozarks of Missouri as an impoverished, isolated place, whose adult residents become savagely tribal, and drug dependent, to survive.
Yet, the first scene in this movie shows children at play as they jump happily on a backyard trampoline while a lullaby is sung in the background. And as the story unfolds, having babies, despite the lack of financial resources, appears as a source of happiness in a life almost devoid of that attribute, and possibly the only hope for the future for these otherwise sad folks. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, playing a seventeen year old when she was nineteen in her first Oscar-nominated role), visits a class where young pregnant girls learn how to take care of their future children. However, the harshness of the surroundings force the younger population to grow up fast in order to face the adversity around them. Ree must take care of her mentally ill mother and her very young brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Their father, Jessup, who cooks meth, has been absent for a while. It is not an easy task for Ree given the lack of resources. The house is dilapidated, and the children sleep on a couch and a sofa. When Ashlee wants to feed the dog, Ree searches for something out of the refrigerator, smells it to make sure it’s still good, and announces what amounts to all that they can expect out of life when she says, “Better than nothing.”

Ree is a responsible surrogate parent as she teaches her siblings basic mathematics and spelling. She shows them even at an early age, because the surroundings demand learning these grown-up skills, how to use a rifle to hunt and protect themselves, but also how to be careful around the weapons. When Ree shows her brother and sister how to skin a squirrel, Sonny asks about the animal’s organs, “Do we eat these parts?” Ree’s answer is, “Not yet,” a minimalist answer that carries great meaning as to how precarious their world is. Ree must also chop wood so that they can stay warm. There is no reliance on the outside world here, so one must rely on others living there. Ree brings her horse to stay with her neighbor, Sonya (Shelley Waggener), who lives a little higher on the poverty spectrum, for food since the horse has not eaten in days. Sonya brings food over to Ree’s house, and lets Ree use her wood splitter. However, Ree tells Sonny, “Never ask for what oughta be offered.” Among these people, that rule maintains the recipient's pride, since they are not seen as beggars, and places responsibility on the residents to help others; if they have to be asked for what they should offer, they would incur embarrassment.

To make matters much worse, Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) comes by saying Jessup put up the house and the land as collateral for his bail, and if he doesn’t show up for his court date coming up soon, they will have to give up their home. Despite the fact that the law has not found Jessup, we see Ree’s resolve when she convincingly says to the sheriff that she will find her father. When Sonya comes to her house and asks Ree if she’s sure she doesn’t know where her father is, Ree gives her a “how dare you ask that” look as if insulted to think she didn’t tell her the truth. Sonya says then Ree didn’t have anything to tell the sheriff. Ree says she wouldn’t tell the cop anything even if she did know. Sonya’s response is, “Honey, we know that.” This exchange shows the code of silence among the people living there that see the rest of the world as outsiders who only enter their lives to do harm.

At one point we hear the radio in the background which predicts more cold temperatures and freezing rain. The withering weather reflects the dire life the inhabitants must endure, and the hostility of the environment is palpable, so that the title of the film helps one understand how the coldness of the weather and of those living here penetrates to the bone. However, IMDb also says that the title refers to an Appalachian expression that compares a person who is searching for something and will not give up to a dog digging up a “winter’s bone.” Ree is like that dog as she is relentless in trying to find out what happened to her father in order to save her family’s home.
There seems to be more of a bond between the women living in this community than with the males, since the females share the child-rearing experience, and have to contend with the savagery of the men. But, that sisterly help doesn’t always come easily. Sonya delivers, but, as we saw, with a note of uncertainty. Ree goes to her friend and asks for the use of her husband’s truck. He refuses. Ree’s independence can be see in her admonishing her friend when she says, “It’s so sad to hear you say he won’t let you do somethin’ and then you don’t do it.” Ree reminds her that at one time her friend “never used to eat no shit.” Soon after she does secure the truck to help Ree with her search for Jessup.

Even though Ree fears her father’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), she goes to his house to see if he knows what happened to her father. By the way, many of the names in the story are interesting. Ree’s last name is “Dolly,” which shows a nostalgic yearning for the innocence of youth, when a girl could escape into an imaginative world, playing with her doll. Ree has the nickname of “Sweet Pea,” and she is caring toward her family, but it is also ironic because Ree can be tough as hardwood. “Teardrop” sounds sentimental and sympathetic towards those that suffer. But, Ree’s uncle is one mean fellow. For instance, he tells his wife to shut up and when she keeps talking, he says,”I said shut up already, with my mouth,” implying the next time it will hurt. He also takes an axe to a man’s truck who gives him a hard time when Teardrop questions him about his brother. However, it can refer to how much family suffering he has had to endure, and currently points to what he feels about the loss of his brother.
Teardrop, with a gun in his hand, as if that is a normal thing to have even at a discussion at the kitchen table, warns Ree to not ask about her dad. He grabs her by the hair and the throat to emphasize his point, but then seems to soothe her with his hand as he lets go. In his rough way he is actually trying to protect her. He also voices the feeling that her choices are between the lesser of two evils when he says if she keeps asking questions she’ll become food for the hogs, “or wishin’ you was.” Again we see female support from Teardrop’s wife, Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz), who pleads Ree’s cause to Teardrop. He tells her to give Ree some money and send her on her way. Victoria gives Ree a marijuana cigarette to calm her on her walk, because she knows Ree won’t give up. Drugs are used to make money here but also as a means of self-medication to get through difficult times. It has become a lifestyle, but Ree refuses to take them. Later, Teardrop says to her that she hasn’t developed a taste for them yet, as he snorts some powder, which implies that living there creates the need for it.
Ree goes to the home of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) who has another cutesy name which does not fit his character. He is Ree’s cousin (Ree keeps wanting to now why people who are her “kin” aren’t helping her) who used to cook meth with her father. Here, as everywhere else, the property is run down, with partially wrecked vehicles in the yard along with trash cans, old tires, and other refuse, showing us how the lives of these people are in shambles. In his house, a gun in the corner, always ready to be used, Little Arthur says he doesn’t know where Jessup is. Once again, a woman helps Ree. Little Arthur’s wife, Megan (Casey McClaren) tells Ree to ask Thump Milton (a more appropriately tough name) about her father. Ree confesses that he is one man she does not want to talk to. He is Megan’s grandfather, and she is afraid of him. Fear rules in this place.
Ree goes to to see Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), but is told by one of the women living on his compound, Merab (Dale Dickey), that he will not see her, despite Ree’s argument that she isn’t looking for “trouble,” that is, she is not going after who might been involved in her dad’s disappearance, and that she and Thump’s people share some “blood.” But Merab says that she should leave because Thump doesn’t want any witnesses. Ree starts to realize that her father is dead, and those involved in his death don’t want any loose ends that could lead to who killed Jessup. While waiting for this information, Ree sees a small statue of a boy and a girl riding down a slide. The inclusion of this object makes one again think about the the loss of youthful innocence. Childhood has a short span in these circumstances, and all that’s left is an artistic resemblance of it.

Ree does go home, but Little Arthur shows up and takes her to a place where a meth lab blew up and where he says Jessup was killed. Ree says she is not stupid because she knew her father was careful and would not make a mistake that would result in an explosion. In addition, there are tall weeds at the site which would mean the explosion took place way before her dad went missing. Ree knows that Little Arthur was sent to give her an explanation for her father being missing which would end her investigation. Little Arthur says he knows how rough it will be for Ree if she loses her home and offers to raise her children. Ree defiantly refuses the offer, seeing it as an insult concerning her ability to take care of her siblings. She does not want to give up her search for Jessup. If she finds proof of his death, then there is no defiance of the order of the court to appear for trial, and her house and property will not be forfeited. Along the way of Ree’s quest we see people playing music and singing. The songs are mournful, with references about “flying away.” They express the sorrow of these people and how they wish for an escape.

Teardrop visits Ree and tells her that the law found Jessup’s car which was burned, but no body was found. Ree sees that evidence is being destroyed which would lead to her father’s killers. Teardrop advises Ree to sell the land and get some money for the timber before it is confiscated. But Ree instead again goes to see Thump Milton. Merab and the other women at the compound beat her as punishment for showing up again (their code does not permit the men to hit her). When Thump and his men arrive, Ree explains the situation to reassure Thump that she is not out for revenge or to expose anyone involved in her father’s death. Teardrop shows up, says his brother went against the ways of his people, and he assures Thump that he will take responsibility for Ree, promising she will not squeal on anyone. On the way home, Teardrop tells Ree that her father couldn’t handle another stretch in jail, and he made a deal with the law to provide information about the drug dealings of those men in his community. Teardrop believes that the sheriff then let it be known that Jessup had talked so he would get the Jessup’s information and not have to make good on the deal with Jessup, knowing Ree’s father would be killed by those he betrayed. Teardrop tells Ree that if she finds out who did kill Jessup that she shouldn’t tell him. Then he would feel compelled to go after the killer, which would probably lead to his death, or as he puts it, he will be “toes up.”
When Ree returns home, Sonya again is the female helper who gives Ree some pain killers to deal with the results of her beating. Ree accepts the drugs now after having experienced how punishing it is to defy the ways of her community. While she recuperates we see a show on the TV depicting the chopping down of trees as Squirrels scatter as their homes are destroyed. The inclusion of this footage points to how the outside world will decimate the home of Ree’s family. She becomes despondent, thinking that she may have to give up her brother and sister to other family members to take care of them. There was talk earlier of her desire to “fly away,” by joining the Army. She now goes to the recruiting office in order to get the $40,000 sign up bonus. But, she is too young to enlist without parental approval, and her mother is incompetent to give consent. The recruiter also tells her she can’t take her family along, so Ree would be abandoning them.
Teardrop comes by again because he feels the need to find his brother’s body. On their drive, the sheriff stops them, but Teardrop knows that there is no reason for being pulled over. He also has a great deal of animosity toward the sheriff because of how he probably assisted in the death of Jessup. Teardrop refuses to exit the vehicle and he makes sure that Sheriff Baskin can see in his truck’s side view mirror that Teardrop has a rifle in his hand. The sheriff backs off and lets them go. This scene stresses that although the ways of Teardrop and others in this place may be threatening, the law and others from outside their way of life can be just as destructive. Teardrop tells Ree that her father loved them very much, which ironically, in this uncivilized pace, made him weak, not wanting to go away from them to serve a long jail term, and this weakness made him susceptible to danger.
Some women from Thump’s place, including Merab, now join the list of other women who help Ree. They take her to where Jessup’s body is. They put a sack over Ree’s head so she can’t reveal where her father lies. That way, Ree can’t ever tell the police, which would lead to an investigation. They go on a boat to where Jessup rests in some shallow water. Merab says Ree must cut off her father’s hands to prove that he is dead (Merab says one hand might imply that Jessup is alive and tried to prove he was dead by cutting off one hand, which shows how violent is the logic in these parts). Ree breaks down and although she can lift up her dad’s hands, she can’t do the cutting. Merab uses a chainsaw, adding to the gruesomeness of the scene, to cut off the hands. Ree brings them to the sheriff, saying someone flung them on her porch. The sheriff doesn’t want Ree to spread it around that he backed down from Teardrop, saying he was just trying not to have a shootout that might harm Ree since she was there. Ree tells him that’s not the way she saw it, not giving him the satisfaction of his lie. She shows her contempt for the man who helped bring about her father’s death by telling him she wouldn’t say anything about him because she didn’t talk about the sheriff, “ever.”
Teardrop pays a visit to Ree’s home, and brings baby chicks for Sonny and Ashlee. This act may seem to show a gentle side of the man, but he probably is being practical, providing a source for future food, either by way of chicken dinners or eggs. He picks at Jessup’s banjo, and remembers fondly how much better his brother could play. Bree offers to give him the instrument, but he says that she should hold it for him. He then says that he knows who killed Jessup. So, his leaving the banjo may mean that he will seek revenge for his brother, which would probably get him killed. Ashlee picks up the banjo and starts strumming it. This action may seem like a sweet tribute to her father, but it also could imply that she is on the same road to disaster as her parent.
Sonny asks Ree if she is going into the Army and leaving them. Ree’s poetic response is, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.” The life here may be exacting, but the love of children makes bearing the burden of family responsibility worthwhile.

The next film is The Bride on the River Kwai.

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