Thursday, February 10, 2011
Who's the Man?
Winter’s Bone was nominated for 4 Oscars this year, and they’re the big ones: 2 for acting, one for writing, and Best Picture. I’ll give it the acting noms, but I can’t say I’m in agreement with the Best Picture or Best Writing nods. I didn’t really go into this film with any great expectations, having never read the book and not really even knowing what it was about. But given the buzz that has surrounded it and its young ingénue, I was expecting to be wowed and left feeling rather under whelmed by it on a whole. It was decent, and Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role was impressive, but other than that I felt nothing particularly nuanced about this movie. Much if it is a reiteration of themes done over and over before, “country folk” are uneducated, violent, incestuous and uphold patriarchal values.
Winter’s Bone is about Ree Dolly (Lawrence) and her struggle to keep her family together in their home in the face of her father’s abandonment. 17-year-old Ree is left to care for her young siblings after her father, a well known meth addict, has gone on the lam and her mother rendered incompetent by a mental illness. When the county sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) has informed her that should her dad not appear for his court date, scheduled in a few days, Ree and her family will lose their house as he put it up as part of his bond. Facing this reality, she sets off on what turns out to be a dangerous journey to bring her father home.
It was at that point that the movie lost me. Winter’s Bone painted a vivid picture of a young girl trying to keep it together and care for her young siblings and dementia-inflicted mother. Yet, was unable to educate the viewer as to why this endeavor of tracking down her father was so dangerous and why the locals in her town, all of whom she seemed to be related to, warned her against it. Ree spends the entire film painstakingly tracking down her dad, and risks her own life to do so. The people and family members she seeks out to help her, more often than not, end up beating and threatening her. She learns to fend for herself with nearly no allies.
A reoccurring theme throughout the movie is that of family. Nearly everyone with whom Ree interacted is a cousin of sorts. Now, this might have been a comment of incest in her community, but it was often tied to issues of loyalty and protection. Initially she seeks out help from her father’s younger brother, Teardrop (played by Oscar nominated John Hawkes) who initially refuses to help her and even threatens her with violence should she continue of her search. Eventually, he decides to come to her aid and saves her from those inflicting actual harm upon her. Having her uncle on her side is going to be a good thing for Ree as people fear her uncle and know he’s not to be messed with. Unfortunately, the film is unable to articulate why he ultimately has a change of heart and the audience is just expected to sort of go with it. Furthermore, other than a few brooding moments and angry outbursts, it’s hard to understand just why this slight man with a few ominous tattoos (and a nickname which reminded me of Johnny Depp in Cry Baby) is so feared.
Tied into the family theme is that of the role of patriarchy and what that means to the family unit. This message is probably the most interesting thing about the film. Ree, this 17-year-old child who should be in school has been acting as both mother and father to her siblings: she feeds, bathes and cares for them in all ways possible. She even teaches them how to hunt and skin animals so they could one day provide for themselves. In the early scenes of the film Ree walks into her high school and observes a Home-ec class learning how to care for babies. This is almost a joke to someone who has been doing this all her life. Yet, despite her competency, she nevertheless needs to find her father to keep the house and her family in tact. In her quest to find her dad she comes across many women who claim to want to help her out, but don’t do so out of fear of their husbands’ reactions. When Ree breaks that hierarchy and tries to go to the men anyway it’s the women who turn out to inflict the most violence and who uphold this old time value almost more than their husbands.
This to me is the most powerful statement the film was making – the role of women in this staunchly patriarchal society. No matter how the men behave or how intimidating they are, or how self sustained the women seem to be, they will always protect their men. The ultimate redemption in the film only comes when some of the women who initially inflicted the most pain and upheld this order to the fullest, put that aside to bring Ree what she finally needed to survive.