The Abundant Spirit of a Poor Girl: Winter’s Bone

By Daniel Garrett

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik
(Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes
Roadside Attractions, 2010

Winter’s Bone is one of those films about the other America: the one without glamour, without money, without power, without resources, the one we were told was defeated or transformed long ago, the one we are told is being transformed now, but it resists transformation, as it resists false hope and false rhetoric. The people we see in the film have little more than themselves and the land on which they live; and there are circumstances and forces working to deprive them of that. The film follows a young woman—a toughened girl really—who is told that her father put up the family’s house and land for bail and that he has gone missing; and it is her intention to find him or his dead body, and keep her younger brother and sister, brain-addled mother, and herself on the family property, the only thing keeping them all from complete destitution. Jennifer Lawrence is a beautiful, sensuous girl, but it is the kind of beauty that is easily exploited or ruined; and her character has grown up seeing damage done to others, and though not yet independent she has begun to teach her siblings how to survive, teaching them how to hunt, and how to cook. What intelligence or strength exists in such persons and lives can feel like the grace of divinity, though it is really a sharpened survival instinct that refuses to die, that insists that it will do everything before it gives in—that, in fact, it will never give in but must be destroyed by greater and more relentless forces. In the film, the young woman, Ree, not yet eighteen, visits the friends and relatives of her father, asking questions, looking for clues. John Hawkes as her rough, drug-taking uncle counsels her not to ask questions, even threatening her himself. Ree is avoided or diverted, but persists, to the discomfort or embarrassment of others; and then she is beaten—and continues her search. When her assailants ask, “What are we going to do with you?” She says something like, “I guess you could kill me”—and someone says that has been suggested already, and then she says, “You could help me. Has anyone thought of that?” The directness and humor is recognizable to anyone who has been compelled to face brutal necessity, not at all clear why she is getting such consistent and deep opposition. The answer, whether spoken or not, is the same as usual: your interests do not coincide with ours; something that remains true—until it is not. There are times when, unexpectedly, the beleaguered and desperate person becomes the easiest to satisfy, as here. What is great about the film is that it tells a very particular story but leaves the viewer feeling as if he or she has seen something timeless and true about the human condition.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett is organizing an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which awaits publication.