I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic settings, so I was really looking forward to seeing Winter’s Bone – a film apparently set some years after The Road, in a world ravaged by elemental forces where the survivors have just started to band together, build primitive huts and are working on rebuilding the human race. Except Winter’s Bone is not actually set in some desolate post-apocalyptic future, but is set in the desolate pre-apocalyptic present, in some area of America called the Ozarks that Google claims looks idyllic and pleasant, but Winter’s Bone portrays as some sort of frozen dirty hell where people live in ramshackle settlements that appear to have been sneezed across the landscape by a lazy typhoon and everyone vacuums up drugs like Mr Snuffleupagus on a week-long crank bender while stroking their shotguns and glaring. I really doubt these people even have decent broadband coverage, let alone power-showers.
And yet, somehow, life finds a way. Jennifer Lawrence plays 17 year-old ‘Ree’ – which is barely a name but considering there are other characters called ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Thump’, she is quite a long way ahead of the curve. Ree ‘carries the fire’ – a good person in a world where hillbilly types literally want to take your children and gaggles of chainsaw-wielding witches haunt the swamps. I found the characters and the world they lived in fascinating – hillbillies are rarely seen in films except perhaps as as comedy parodies or as monsters in horror films like Deliverance. Which is not to say that Winter’s Bone is a horror film – though threat of violence is ever-present – just that the setting feels really unfamiliar: I had no idea whereabouts in America the Ozarks even were, and I am not exaggerating when I say it looks like the same ruined world as The Road (although I don’t think The Road was filmed anywhere near). It’s strange to think that people still live like this in America, though I think we are seeing one of the more extreme cases of poverty and isolation in Winter’s Bone: Ree is on the verge of losing her house and all her possessions, even potentially her family as she may be forced to give her younger brother and sister away to be raised by people with marginally more money – as she says, the next step down the property ladder is living in a cave.
Winter’s Bone is an excellent film, the hopelessness of the situation and the alien environment should be crushingly miserable, but Ree perseveres on her mission to find her missing father. She’s pragmatic and dogmatic and doesn’t get disheartened despite having to go to some pretty bleak places and rarely finding anyone that isn’t hostile to her, let alone that will help her, all the while trying to teach her younger brother and sister how to cook and hunt and survive in case they ever need to do it for themselves. It’s a really great performance: she’s fearless despite the toothless troll people she has to deal with and the big-eared boys she has to stand up to. Also fantastic are John Hawkes as the notorious Teardrop and Dale Dickey as Merab, the matriarch of the most powerful hillbilly clan – they not really the horror movie cliches I have been describing them as, though they are undoubtedly horrifying – these are not people you would want to ever meet, let alone have to deal with when they got angry. Yet both have a lot of depth and humanity – albeit a battered and desperate humanity – and these two performances especially helped elevate the film to something quite remarkable. Easily one of the best films of last year.