Jeff Reichert on Winter’s Bone and Country
Both Debra Granik’s 2010 Academy Award–nominated indie thriller Winter’s Bone and Richard Pearce’s 1984 farm saga Country, the first release from Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures studio, and that year’s New York Film Festival opening night film, focus on families struggling to save their homes from seizure by government agents. Bone’s teenaged Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) acts as single parent to two younger siblings in the wake of her meth-dealing father Jessup’s disappearance and severely mentally ill mother’s slide into oblivion. One afternoon, bailiffs show up in the debris-strewn yard of their small rickety home threatening to foreclose on the place if her father doesn’t present himself at an upcoming court date; seems dear old dad used the house as collateral for his bail. Ree has little idea where Jessup is and the neighbors who might know aren’t kindly disposed towards young girls poking into the area’s bustling meth trade. Barely schooled, but apparently in possession of some true grit, she ventures off into the menacingly lensed Ozark backwoods in search of her father.
By contrast, Country’s midwestern Ivy family seems well-off: Jewell (Jessica Lange) and her husband, Gil (Sam Shepard), work their expansive farm along with Jewell’s father, Otis (Wilford Brimley), teenaged son Carlisle (Levi L. Knebel) and somewhat younger daughter Marlene (Theresa Graham). The fertile land has been in Jewell’s family for generations, and she and her husband have never dreamed of living any life that doesn’t involve farming. At the film’s open, their idyllic existence is practically an advertisement for Middle America (the film was shot in Iowa). In the wake of an unexpected twister that leaves their tractor damaged, financial troubles come to light. The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which only a half decade prior encouraged farm families to borrow against their land to expand production, has now adjusted its mandate and is forcing debt-ridden farms into foreclosure (a nod to the ideological shift from Carter to Reagan administrations). Facing thousands of dollars in debt, Gil slides into alcoholism and violence, eventually abandoning the family, leaving Jewell to find a way to save the farmstead.
Jewell’s trajectory is quite similar to Ree’s; their milieus may be radically different, but they share the same goal. Both films are structured around quest narratives, and employ this teleology as a mechanism for plumbing regional specificities and eccentricities—Granik and Pearce use their stories as vehicles for ethnography. Where Country and Winter’s Bone sharply diverge lies in their relative weighting of ethnographic and journey-narrative elements. Pearce, who won Berlin’s Golden Bear for his first feature, 1980’s Heartland, a look at Scottish farmers in turn of the 19th century Wyoming, and acted as cinematographer for the revered documentary Hearts and Minds (sadly, his latest credit is the 2006 made-for-TV disaster movie Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America), spends the first twenty minutes of his film simply living with the Ivy clan, watching them make breakfast, farm, converse. A good deal of time is spent leisurely following Jewell as she grills hamburgers and carefully packs them up for delivery to the men working the fields—in Country, watching acts undertaken in the course of daily life is key. Winter’s Bone has Ree off to the races only eight minutes after the film begins, following a few brief vignettes that provide insight into her life in the Ozarks—we see her hanging the laundry, combing her mother’s hair, walking her younger siblings to a school she clearly no longer attends. Each shot acts as a signifier of a portion of her existence, but each flits by too quickly. Clearly one filmmaker is in a hurry to take her characters somewhere else, while the other would rather be nowhere but with what his creations are doing at the moment of filming.
As the story goes, independent films like Winter’s Bone exists to serve as a vital corrective to the Hollywood dream factory, telling the tales and introducing the characters that the machine marginalizes in pursuit of mass appeal. Hollywood/indie is often framed as a strictly oppositional relationship, even though the reality is much more complicated, the divisions more porous, especially with studio fare like Country. In times such as these, when the big studios have abandoned the serious (read: adult) drama in favor of infantile spectacle, independent film is troublingly positioned by critics and its industry boosters as the necessary gap filler. Yet, too often, instead of voices standing firm on the outskirts of the mainstream flourishing, this evacuation results in a flood of cheaply made middlebrow films proudly dressed up in outsider clichés, yet unaware that their markers of “independent” are wholly vacated of meaning through unthinking overuse. Thus, darkness and sadness equals authenticity, the layering of oddball character traits points to originality, the investigating of heretofore unseen subcultures or geographic regions somehow suggests documentary value. Many narratives lauded for their “indie”-ness work from a playbook no less rigid than that of their big studio counterparts. They’re just less forthcoming about it, and, as a consequence, less honest.
Winter’s Bone fades in on a grim field surrounded by trees that’s populated by beat up autos and trailers, quickly announcing the camp with which Granik’s filmmaking aligns. A few artfully framed wisps of thistle sway in the breeze in the foreground to cement our distance from the ostensible subject of interest; the camera lingers long enough so that we can clearly understand the subversion of an image of home that has started off so many regional American films. Country, on the other hand, begins with a shot of a floorboard. We’re inside somewhere and instantly invited into a world labeled “Country” by a simple title card as a piano softly plinks on the soundtrack. A child’s feet tiptoe into the frame—first the left, then the right—as the camera pans up to reveal the interior of a home. The image is utterly generic, no details stand out; the child walking down the hall could be anywhere. One opening bespeaks of an easy intimacy with its subject, the other, distance.
Granik may have stepped outside her New York City home to document a world most indie filmgoers are far from accustomed to (a laudable goal, on its face), but, like so many contemporary stabs at regional filmmaking, her work too easily reduces down to cultural tourism. The details of Winter’s Bone—the skinning of game, preparation of squirrel soup, burned out meth labs, faded oversized military jackets—certainly feel authentic, and when framed through that ready arbiter of truth, an unsteady handheld lens, they provide cover for reviewers who, though they live thousands of miles from the Ozarks and will likely never set foot anywhere near them, label the depiction “unblinkingly honest.” But how would they know? And how do I know that it’s not? When a depressed region of “others” is framed in a terribly grim light by the privileged filmmaking class without any clear signal in the text of the pitfalls of such approaches, viewers would do well to be suspicious. In interviews, at least, Granik seems more than aware of the quandaries surrounding this brand of narrativized ethnography, yet for all of her team’s efforts to get the Ozarks right, they committed the ultimate wrong upfront: their aim when descending upon the region was to tell Ree’s story first, all the attendant details of the place are enslaved to that harrowing tale and, as such, only serve to reinscribe all the better-known features of the area, most of which are negative (i.e. meth, poverty, clannishness).
The unadorned Country, with its clean, unfussy cinematography, can in no way be mistaken for a documentary, yet if it were released today, one might expect critics to label it as such, so foreign has the stuff of rural American life become to most urban critics’ eyes and big city screens. (This may be a longer running problem: a perusal of Roger Ebert’s 1984 review of the film finds a documentary comparison tucked into its final paragraph.) That critical commonplace was also applied to Winter’s Bone (notably, in many of the same articles that labeled it a “gothic thriller”) a film whose only real nod to nonfiction is that much of it was shot outdoors. This is another unintended side effect of Hollywood vacating the space of the truly “middle” (-class, -American, -brow) drama and blasting further and further into the unreal stratosphere. When the average American in a studio film dresses in Abercrombie and lives in a Deep Elm catalogue page, anything approaching the hardscrabble can’t help but be mistaken for “real” by default. This is dangerous territory because it allows obviously fictionalized works to be accepted as bearers of truth. Country doesn’t surpass Winter’s Bone because it’s somehow “more real”—it’s a movie through and through, and isn’t afraid to fall back on convention (a late-film rallying speech given by an impassioned Lange plays as the Oscar bait it successfully became: Lange was nominated)—but by actually caring to approach its subject with an open mind, an eye for subtleties, and in full awareness of its own position as a fictional movie. Pearce surely could have dropped the tripod and inserted more markers of nonfiction filmmaking, but he wisely refrains. Recognizing the differences between documentary realism and cinematic realism is something that should be second nature to all critics, yet it often is not.
In Winter’s Bone’s most risible sequence, Ree, fresh off a beating and heavily drugged, dreams in black-and-white of squirrels cavorting in the forest; according to Granik, this was her chance to bring viewers face-to-face with the girl’s subjectivity. This grafted-on cinematic mannerism signals the creakiness of her project, and allegiance to individual character over a more holistic view of a region. Pearce doesn’t assume he has the ability to penetrate his characters’ subconscious, so he chooses instead to just watch them; their dreams emerge from the material of their interactions, the incidental conversations that take place between the Ivys and their neighbors in the community, from the fight that Jewell puts up to hang onto her beloved patch of land. Country quietly expands as the film progresses to encompass the plight of all American farmers in the period (including a sequence of a farmer’s suicide that’s as sudden and shocking as any of the events in Bone’s back half); Granik’s narrative remains stubbornly specific, local to the perspective of a single character’s story. For the most part, she tells it ably, it’s just that the stories of the rest of the denizens she encounters in the Ozark night that are left maddeningly untold.
If the approaches of these two films diverge from their outsets, their endings pay the expected dividends. At Winter’s Bone’s close, Ree and her siblings sit, grungily beatific on the front steps of the shack Ree’s gone through hell to save, the youngest awkwardly strumming at a banjo. The unnecessary length of the shot affords us time to ponder the “big” questions: What’s next for this young brood? What will be their next trial? When the ambiguity has mounted sufficiently, Granik brutally cuts to black—nothing like profundity delivered with a slap in the face. After Jewell’s ultimate success in rallying her community to fight the FmHA, Country closes humbly with a series of cards describing how the kinds of actions seen in the film led to nationwide organization, class action lawsuits, change, and relief for farmers. In today’s cinema, integrity is sadly aligned with the bittersweet, Pyhrric, or wholly open-ended conclusion. Country’s rousing, uncomplicated ending would have a hard time getting respect in today’s indiewood world. Both of these films feature the ultimate triumphs of strong-willed female protagonists, but I much prefer one that emphasizes the collective, the region, the milieu over the success of one character, no matter how indelible or well-performed.