Phew-ee, I’ve been out of the cinema loop, what with Edinburgh, and then going on holiday to a place with no cinema. So it was with some relief that I returned to the reassuring Curzon to see Winter’s Bone last night, and rejoined the cinemagoing public. Lots of people queuing up to see Tamara Drewe, but I have low hopes for that, and fancied something a bit more nutritious. So I went for the low-budget, downbeat US indie, with Sundance stamps all over it and its director Debra Granik, whose previous film, which I haven’t seen, also coincidentally with Bone in the title, Down To The Bone, also won laurels in Park City in 2004. Winter’s Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, which I haven’t read, is set in the Ozark Mountains in deepest Missouri, where cars are left to die in the grass, shotguns are cocked whenever strangers take the wrong path, simple inquiries on porches are met with threats, many layers are worn, carcasses are hung, and you can’t see the wood for the forest. It was also filmed there, among real people and in real houses, which is where the film’s power comes from. (Woodrell was involved in the production, so we may assume it’s faithful not just to his text, but to his people.)
This is not, as Granik puts it, a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery,” although the hand-to-mouth existence for those that scratch out a living here lies at the heart of the story, which revolves around a young woman’s search for her wayward father in order to prevent the bailiffs throwing here out of a pretty humble abode, which he’s put up for bail after being busted for the manufacture of “crank” ie. crystal meth, which is a way of life up there in the hills. Ree, played by a Jennifer Lawrence, who’s sucking up all the plaudits and rightly so, spends most of the film either maternally training her younger brother and sister for the hard life that’s ahead of them (they skin a squirrel at one point) – I certainly assumed they were her kids and that the father was absent, but they’re not – or knocking on the doors of strangers, who also happened to be distantly related to her by blood, trying to track her daddy down. Clannish loyalty unites them against her.
It’s a beautiful looking film, which is not to say it’s always pretty. But the location is vividly conveyed – the light, the timber, the decor, the plastic condiment bottles shot off a fence for target practice, the difference in car between the residents and the visiting bondsmen, sheriffs and social workers. We’re right there in their predicament with them. In many ways, in its simple narrative and even-handed treatment of the locals, even when things get a bit gothic, it’s the anti-Deliverance. Banjos are not played by weird in-bred curiosities, but by families having a knees-up. It’s not country versus town. It’s people versus the authorities. Lawrence, whose first significant movie role this is, will be a star. Watch out too for John Hawkes, who plays her initially sinister, violent, coke-snorting uncle, whom you may have seen in Lost, briefly, or Eastbound And Down.
It’s too easy to romanticise poverty, but Winter’s Bone doesn’t. It’s hard up there in the mountains. And the respite is modest and infrequent. But people with drawling accents who chew tobacco aren’t stupid. And family ties count for something. Oh, and they seem to be really nice to their cats and dogs and horses. And they probably like the grey squirrel more than, say, the gun-toting conservationists in Northumberland, who trap and kill them without subsequently skinning and eating them in a stew.
Oscars in the new year? Maybe.