Winter’s Bone, a beautiful, powerful meth movie

by Rob Tiller

Some years back I developed the view that the age of written fiction was almost over and being replaced by the age of cinema fiction. Would people continue to take on the hard work of reading a book if they could have same experience without so much effort? The experiences aren’t perfect substitutes, of course, but there’s overlap. I’m not so worried now about written fiction, which is diminished as a cultural force but still around. But it does worry me that cinema seems less vital and ambitious in recent times. Could the age of cinema be ending? What comes next? The age of YouTube? At any rate, I haven’t been tempted to go out to many movies this year, and haven’t seen many new ones that I really cared about on the small screen.

Winter’s Bone is a notable exception. We saw it on DVD Friday night, and it was great. The subject matter didn’t sound particularly promising — hardscrabble life in rural Missouri — but the movie manages to combine gritty realism with a dreamlike quality. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is an understated tour de force. She plays Ree, a 17-year-old whose father has disappeared, whose mother has advanced dementia, and whose younger brother and sister are completely dependent on her. Then she is informed that their cabin will be foreclosed on because her father jumped bail, and sets out to find him.

The land and culture reminded me of my own ancestral roots in southern Appalachia. Just as in southwestern Virginia, along with the poverty, there were aspects of the Ozarks countryside that were beautiful and touching. The scene where working people gathered in a home to make traditional music with guitars, fiddle and banjo reminded me of sounds I heard in bits and pieces as a child when we visited grandparents. The music reaffirmed that the possibility of community still exists.

But a central part of the story of Winter’s Bone is about the breakdown of community and the tragic social effects of methamphetamine. Ree’s father was a cooker, and everyone connected with him is also connected directly or indirectly to the meth business. Most of them are angry, paranoid, depressed, violent people. Their family lives are unhappy, and their communities are fractured. But they have not lost all dignity.

The depiction of meth culture seemed realistic and unsensational, and consistent with a book I read a few months back, Nick Reding’s Methland, a non-fiction account of the effects of meth in small town America. Reding makes the case that meth has devastated parts of rural and small town America. He does a good job tying together the sociology with the biology, history, and economics, and tells some good, and sad, stories. Although the successive waves of official and popular drug scare stories (such as the dangers of marijuana, which never killed anyone) might make one skeptical that meth is exceptionally dangerous, Reding has evidence that it is, both to individual addicts and to communities.

Winter’s Bone tends to confirm that view, but it isn’t making an argument. It’s like other great fiction, in that it reveals a side of life that we couldn’t learn about through any other medium, and one that changes, at least a little, how we look at the world around us.