Before Debra Granik directed the perfect movie, Leave No Trace, she made Winter’s Bone. The woods and ponds of the Ozarks in winter are the setting as a daughter tries to find her bail-skipping father. Granik does a great job, in both films, of capturing the beauty of nature. The color pallet for Winter’s Bone is less vibrant and lush to match the tone of the film when compared to Leave No Trace. This is not a happy film and there are no directorial decisions to tell you otherwise.
Ree, a late-teens girl spends the movie trying to find her father or evidence of his death after he skips bail. He put the house up that Ree and her two younger siblings live in. They have a sustenance only life and Ree does everything in her power to take care of her siblings. Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence and Winter’s Bone was her breakout role. The Jennifer Lawrence we have all come to enjoy on-screen is the same one we see here. Her acting is wonderful and showed us all what we would later come to expect from Lawrence.
Ree is part of a small community of poor neighbors and small-time drug dealers. This is not the Netflix Ozarks. Ree moves through this seedy world refusing to be intimidated. She is willing to do anything to keep the roof over her sibling’s heads. Parts of the community help look out for Ree, but they also warn her of danger as she seeks proof of her father’s death, likely by murder. She has no interest in bringing her dad’s killers to justice, instead she just wants to keep the house and get out of his bail obligations. The movie is not very mysterious, but it is full of drama.
There are some men in the movie, but they are all background characters. The women are the people with power. It may not seem like that at first, but the way the women work in and around the system is where the real power lies. At first glance, you would expect the women to be subservient to the men, but they are strong. They take up the roles of gatekeepers at times, but this also allows them to work outside the system.
The movie has a great balance between the story of Ree’s refusal to give up and women working outside a male-dominated power structure. It is a hero’s journey in a bleak place with a minimal reward at the end. All the assistance Ree gets in the film comes from women actively defying the men who expect them to be subservient. They are clever in their methods and avoid backlash from the men who are too blind to see who holds the power.
Granik is a wonderful writer and director and needs more attention. Her stories are complex while remaining relatable. She has a wonderful eye for talent, discovering Jennifer Lawrence. While not a happy movie this is enjoyable. If you like Leave No Trace, Winter’s Bone is a must watch.