Was it really almost 13 years ago that Bill Clinton came clean about all that randy behavior in the White House with Monica? Time flies in a land of dropped flies. I don’t remember what I was doing at the moment—as people are wont to do in times of cataclysm—but I’ll never forget the lesson: Politicians have libidos. I could have learned it a hundred different times (Gary Hart tried to inform me), but it’s the type of thing that doesn’t easily register. I remember thinking that it’s not all powdered wigs and sturgeon roe; there were stiffies going on under big official desks. Even still, it doesn’t seem all that possible.
Anyway, this obviously got me to thinking about Winter’s Bone. The movie, not the Daniel Woodrell book. Pardon the Freudian pun, but the film is set in the Ozark Mountain range, which extends right through the heart of Arkansas, with the slick gray dourness of Clinton’s hair. The austerity of the setting and small budget no-nonsense comes off like an Oscar caught in the headlights (one assumes purposefully). The casting—aside from maybe Jennifer Lawrence, who is the unmade-up, unsmiling teen heroine of sorts—is realistic to the point of distraction. Many of the cast members just have that look of a dog’s chewed-up ear. Many of them aren’t actors at all, but real people in their real way of going about life in shotgun dwellings. There’s plenty of good fancy hatred in their eyes, too, the kind that comes from smalltown distrustfulness and aggravating proximity.
In other words, Debra Granik’s film tells the truth in ways adaptations usually don’t or can’t. Even with the truth being as slippery as it is, you’ve got to take these types of things where you can get them.
If you haven’t seen it, the story is about a 17-year-old girl named Ree (Lawrence) who goes about trying to track down her crystal meth-making father, Jessup, who put their house up for bond after a recent arrest and is on the lam. Either that or, poof, he’s just gone, dude, disappeared, kaplooey. Whatever the case, he needs to get back quick or his family loses the property. Ree is up against a variety of long odds as she bandies about on foot trying to find him—house about to be taken away, no car, lying bastards, non-forthcoming bastards, ill mother, early malaise . . . you know, she’s in backwoods Missouri, has herself a shady uncle named Teardrop and all that—but she has a sense of duty to match her quiet ethics. Her search takes her into some harsh encounters with rival drug pushers and bat-shit neighbors and cop-like characters who are cops, all of whom have no understanding of things like “mirth” and “optimism.” They do, however, drive filthy pick-up trucks.
It’d be a lie to say it’s a thrill ride, but there’s enough good dialogue—much of it unspoken or really terse—and empty, quiet spaces for things to take on the intended gravity here. Things are stark. The horses are hungry. You couldn’t get the lady with the pitchfork to laugh even if you showed her The Holy Grail. Ree is teaching her younger siblings to hunt squirrels and other survival techniques to be had in bramble-life; she herself wants to join the Army and get the hell out. She might get killed poking around, and she’s cool with that, too. It’s a tightrope act to get information about Missing Daddy, whom everyone clams up about (some knowing exactly where he is), and upholding her family tradition of keeping things civilly unlawful and therefore peaceful. Nobody has no time for no Johnny Law come sniffing around, if you know what I mean.
That’s the cold, welcome vibe of the movie, which got a good reception at Sundance—a festival that still dictates what’s bursting the indie spirit in film—winning a Grand Jury Prize. It may not be very faithful to the book, which had a far snowier setting, but it is faithful to itself. The film never falters from the bleak chord it strikes in the beginning until the banjo chords Ree plays on her porch at the end. And, for an independent film with all its mulling points in order almost entirely built around countenances and dialogue (and lopped off appendages), it’s still engrossing.
But getting back to the beginning, I suppose that the whole Clinton Confession would be old hat if we had CNN in the late 1700s, back when Thomas Jefferson was very gladfully having sexual relations with that woman, Sally Hemings. A slave, no less. Hard to believe.