I never had any plans to travel to the Missouri Ozark region and certainly won’t be rushing to go after seeing Winter’s Bone. I’m sure it has beautiful lakes, historical sites and fine wines , but the movie shows that  it also has godforsaken areas where grinding poverty is the norm.

The movie is based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, part of a fictional series he has called Country Noir. The main character is 17-year-old Ree Dolly who has to provide for her sick and depressed mother and younger brother and sister. Her father, Jessup, has disappeared seemingly to evade a drug related charge and certain gaol. He has jumped bail and ,since the family home has been put up as collateral, Ree and her family stand to lose everything if he can’t be traced (dead or alive). This is no easy task since the community Ree lives among is governed by strict codes administered by a violent patriarchy headed by ‘Thump’ Milton (no need to ask how it got that nickname!).

Ree is a determined and ,in the circumstances,  incredibly well-balanced individual. The can of worms she uncovers as she tries to find out the fate of her father leads to a gruesome finale.

Jennifer Lawrence is quite outstanding in the role of the fearless and resilient Ree and she has deservedly been nominated for an Oscar. John Hawkes as is also great as her father’s brother (Teardrop) torn between family loyalty and the need not to break ranks in this primal hierarchy.

Not only does the movie present these two actors as major stars in the making, it also introduces a director in Debra Granik with genuine vision and integrity. This is only her second film and hopefully its success will give her the opportunity to make more movies to counter the clichéd ‘woman as victim’ representation that you find all too often in novels and films.

The movie was a triumph at the Sundance Film Festival and has rightly received universal critical acclaim with only a handful of dissenting voices. Among these is the  New York Post critic who should be ashamed of himself for using the offensive term ‘poverty porn’ to suggest that the movie makes entertainment out of people’s misery. It may depict a bleak and brutal world but only the most blinkered could interpret this as voyeuristic or exploitative.

Marideth Sisco

Music is a vital element in capturing the authentic mood. The excellent score was composed by Dickon Hinchcliffe, of The Tindersticks but it is the bluegrass music that stands out. This is not just a quaint backdrop but shows how country music is an integral part of these people’s lives. A local band Dirt Road Delight perform Palm of His Hand  and in one great scene, we see a musical ‘picking party’ with Marideth Sisco and a local band.

Sisco sums up why this music fits in so well:   “We excel at sad ballads because that’s just a fact of life here. The Ozarks isn’t an easy place to live. It makes for a hard life for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of struggle and a lot of heartache, but feelings and families run really deep here. The music becomes a way to celebrate that”.

In its own way, the movie is also a celebration of the Ozarks people though won’t necessarily be welcomed by the Missouri tourist industry.

Related link :

High on a Mountain: Interview with Marideth Sisco (the9513.com)