I keep hearing indie movies are dead. Maybe they’re just hibernating, and one fine spring they’ll awaken with a hunger in their bellies. But right now, we are in the midst of a very long and cold winter. Things are bleak, folks.
I’ve just returned from an arctic film experience and I didn’t have to go to Sundance to see it. Winter’s Bone has finally found its way to the local multiplex…smack dab in the middle of summer. Bad timing, but it’s been on my radar since it started getting attention at Sundance, receiving the festival’s top honor and a four star review from Roger Ebert.
It is the story of an Ozark(ian?) girl of 17 named Ree, who treks through her neighbor’s backyards to find her missing father. It isn’t a Herculian journey; every night she has to come back home and feed the kids: her younger brother and sister are left to her care since her mother is over-medicated and out of touch with reality. Ree’s a quiet, working class hero with just enough zest, piss and vinegar to make for a good salad dressing. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, it is a performance that shoulders most of the movie.
This has been labeled a noir, because of its grim tone and setting, and also because I’m not sure what else you would call it. Indie movies are emerging which emphasize location and authenticity.
For an example of this see Ballast (2008) which was hailed for its authentic setting in the Delta. Or any of David Gordon Green’s earlier movies.
Authenticity is a buzzword you hear now and again. It might be the sole driving force behind the indie films that “make it” – i.e. get picked up and distributed – versus those that do not.
So I am sure the Ozarks were a selling point here.
But I must fully disclose I had no idea where the Ozarks were. If you’re thinking, the Ozarks? Fascinating! Then don’t let your curiosity for this region of the U.S. be the only reason to see this film.
I prefer an engaging story over authenticity. In this case, authenticity becomes suffocating, paralyzing. As Ree wanders through the backyard of the Ozarks there is a heavy burden she carries, hoping to find her father and running into all the people who might have seen him last. And they’re connected into a meth underworld. Half of the faces look like they’ve used; the other half look like they sell it.
We learn Ree’s dad used to make batches of it. She visits a burned out house, taken there by her uncle, a man who hasn’t been on good terms with her father in years. He thinks he died in the house’s explosion. But Ree knows her dad too well. Cooking meth might not have been a noble profession, but he was good at it. She turns away from the house, knowing that wasn’t how he met his fate.
What Ree eventually discovers isn’t any better though.And her discovery is only more significant since her search to find him brings back feelings of nostalgia. She looks through his photos, and for a few seconds we get a glimpse of his face when Ree was a little girl and her mother wasn’t a space cadet.
This is a story about loss, only here the characters may not realize it until it’s too late. But late is still better than never.
I couldn’t overcome how depressing the tone was. It’s not a movie I would ever see again. I suppose it was successful in what it set out to do, but I still value entertainment more than I value authenticity. Sometimes the latter can nail it so well that you just wish for the former.