Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us
to account” ?
It is doubtful if 17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) ever has read the Psalms. Her family is en meshed in the criminal sub-culture of the southern Ozarks, rather than being a part of the church-going segment. But she could well understand the psalmist’s cry for justice, so similar to her own quest. At a time when other teenaged girls in the outside culture are dreaming of proms and planning on going to college, Ree is worried about holding on to the family house for herself, her mother totally incapacitated by mental depression, and her little sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) and younger brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone). A sheriff’s deputy is looking for her absent father Jessup because he has been released on bail for cooking methane. He has put up the house as collateral for his bail, so if he does not show up, she and her family will be evicted in a week. She tells the skeptical deputy that she will find him. Thus begins her odyssey amidst such bleak and hostile conditions that would discourage any adult, let alone a teenager.
Ree, however, is made of the same tough fiber as that of the widow in Jesus’ parable who would not take No for an answer from the corrupt judge. We see how impoverished the family is at the beginning of the film when Ree and her siblings watch longingly as the neighbors skin a deer. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” she tells Sonny, who may be tired of their steady diet of fried potatoes. The neighbor will not help Ree in her search, but she does bring over a sack of deer meat so that the family will have more than potatoes for supper. Ree is well aware of their lack, but the children are still young enough that they do not realize how desperate their situation is. They spend much of their time bouncing up and down on the one luxury item that their father apparently had bought for them, a large outdoor trampoline.
Worried over losing their home, Ree turns to her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who when she tries to overcome his reluctance to help, resorts to violence to get her to shut up. Walking from cabin to cabin up and down the hollows, Ree is met with hostile suspicion and the advice to go home and keep quiet. All are bound by the culture of silence and of regarding the law as totally hostile to their interests and well-being.
“Ain’t you got no men that can do this?” the wife of the local drug king asks her. Of course, she does not, which is why she has set forth on her solitary, dangerous quest. In no uncertain terms the message is transmitted to the persistent girl—stop this or face the consequences.
Ree does suffer the consequences, but it is the women who beat her to within an inch of her life, because this is a culture in which men do not touch the women. This is a culture of strict observances, there even being an etiquette in which one does not enter even a kinsman’s home without seeking and receiving permission. The dialogue in the film is as sparse as the lifestyle of the people. About the only music is when Ree comes to a gathering where a local group is holding forth while neighbors and kin dance. Judging by the banjo at her house, Ree’s father was a part of such a group. Her uncle does at last join her, giving in apparently to his buried feeling of kinship, but it is from another, somewhat surprising, source that Ree will learn the fate of her erring father.
Director Debra Granik worked with Anne Rosellini to adapt her film from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Winter’s Bone. Although it takes place in a lovely but hardscrabble area of the southern Missouri Ozarks, the film might call to mind one taking place during another winter in upstate New York, Frozen River. Both feature heroines up against a society that could care less about them. We wonder how Ree has kept aloof from the drugs and cigarettes so freely used, and acquired such devotion to her younger siblings that she sacrifices herself for them. She does seek flight in the episode in which she talks with an Army recruiter about joining up, frankly admitting that it is for the $40,000 enlistment bonus—presumably enough to save the family property. But later when Sonny asks if she is going to leave them. She replies, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.” I saw this film just a couple of hours before attending a screening of the $200 million Leo DiCaprio sci-fi thriller Inception, and again was impressed with the fact that it is not the amount of dollars poured into a film that makes it worthy and memorable, but the artistry and passion for truth (namely to “get it right” ). Long after I have (fortunately) forgotten the expensive special effects-driven potboiler, this film will linger in my memory. The cast is excellent, with Jennifer Lawrence’s superb performance matched by the rest of the cast (some of which were picked up from the Ozark sites where it was filmed). No wonder the film was a hit at Sundance. It will certainly be on Visual Parables Top Ten list come next year.
Warning: once you get past Question 5, you definitely are in Spoilerland.
1. How do the setting and the style of cinema photography contribute to the mood and plot? Also the almost complete absence of the usual background music? How does the lack of the latter put the responsibility of how the audience feels and reacts on the actors, rather than “telling us” how we should feel? (I was especially reminded of this by the heavy-handed use of music in Inception!)
2. How are Ree and her clan outsiders, or members of what the Scriptures call “the oppressed” ? When people in the film speak of “cooking” to what are they referring? (Nothing shown on the Food Network, is it?)
3. What do you most admire about Ree? Although living amidst abject poverty and a criminal culture, what seems to be her attitude about life? She still retains a sense of justice and optimism, doesn’t she?
4. She has told Sonny, “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” and yet how is she violating this by sticking to her quest?
5. How is her visiting the Army recruiter both an attempt to flee her situation and also to face up to the danger hanging over her family? What do you think of her answer to Sonny’s question about leaving them? How is a responsibility for loved ones both a burden and a joy? When have you felt this also?
6. What are some of the “moments of grace” that we see, even in this bleak setting?
-From the Army recruiter. How does he exercise restraint in getting her to see her situation?
-From the neighbors—Concerning the family horse; the lack of meat.
-Her Uncle Teardrop (aptly named?), who treated her so cruelly at first.
-Most of all, from those who at first beat her. Why do you think that they later changed their minds? How did you feel at the gruesome discovery and what they did with the change saw?
7. Who do you think is the source of the money that the Sherriff reports was brought in for the remainder of her father’s bail? (Also a moment o grace.) Note that the bounty hunter turns the money over to her, perhaps fulfilling the optimistic conclusion of Psalm 12: O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike
terror no more 8. Of what is Ashley’s picking up their father’s banjo at the end of the film a sign? What do you think this film suggests about the future of Ree and her siblings?