June 14, 2010 [Winter's Bone]

Winter's Bone provides a harsh reminder that the movies can romanticize something so thoroughly that we forget the thing itself. Here's it's moonshining, which close to a century of movies—and TV shows and commercials and cartoons and comic strips—have distilled, if I may use the term, that occupation to a fun-filled, action-packed, fussin-and-a-feudin-and-a-lovin free-for-all of Mountain Dew and Kickapoo Joy Juice and Thunder Roads that somehow have emerged as an either comic or epic view of American Rugged Individualism.

Winter's Bone makes one simple substitution—meth for corn likker—and all that falls apart: It's just a trudge downhill, with frightened children left behind and tight-lipped monsters hunched down in the middle of nowhere—where young Ree must descend to keep her family together. But even here, the film refuses to be a luck-n-pluck trek into victory. The landscape is blank-faced, indifferent to her plight, a tangled mess of snarled underbrush and deadfalls, ravines and treelines with their backs turned. This is Country Living Hell.

—And it's those backwoods entrepreneurs who've made it this way. They have no human feeling left, way out there in their own dreary version of independent spirit, just the kind of suspicion you never want to encounter. I've found myself in the woods of Georgia and New Jersey pine barrens and Pennsylvania foothills, and once or twice lost—and once or twice having to approach a little leaning house with nothing else around—and it's no cliché that you better be careful, maybe think twice, better to stay lost for a while longer than face those flat expressions. There's an urban equivalent to this, but at least the traffic still passes by at your back and the streetlights shine.

Ree goes all the way into those woods, and up to those doors, and I'm scared to death for her every minute. And in the end, she's the only damn hillbilly worth looking twice at, she's the Rugged Individualist, the genuine article, strong as any tree left standing in this strip-mined desolation—and she's all this because she too is scared to death, every minute, and doesn't let it stop her.

As quiet as it is, Winter's Bone was filled with tension. Every step she took was more perilous than any back-road moonshiner-revenuer car chase—and infinitely less raucous, no jangling bluegrass, just the clear sound of her steps, the cold making little crackling puddles for her to step on as she makes her way deeper into the woods.

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