Winter’s Bone and the Tragic

“Knowledge reveals, names, and consequently classifies. Speech addresses itself to a face.”
Levinas

For Levinas the face offers an absolute resistance to possession.

Debra Granik’s new film, Winter’s Bone, as was touched upon in an earlier thread, is a film that’s currency is that of the opacity of the face. Shot for two million in digital (with a RED camera) the film delves into language as it existed before it became descriptive. In a realm of pre-rational tribal/Biblical retributions. In a sense, it made me think again of Audiard’s Un Prophet. If Malik crosses into the holy through a prison and violent sacrifices, young Ree Dolly, and especially her crack addict Uncle Teardrop, also cross into realms of existential choice and near religious insight. These choices are carried out in the landscape of rural Appalachia (the far western end in Missouri) whose poverty is so systemic as to be taken for granted. When a neighbor girl answers Ree’s remark about some men cooking up meth, the girl says, ‘they all do, dont really need to even mention it’. The plague of meth is just an extension of poverty. Its the virus sent out from the total hegemony of capitalist exploitation. The Biblical sense of familial responsibility and the insular defended back woods culture, now all but destroyed, are presented without a trace of sentimentality or voyeuristic fetishizing.

Scottsdale meth lab

This is also a film made by a woman. While Teardrop is the actual moral center of the film, the bulk of the narrative is carried by the hard bitten women of this closed world, and by the young 17 year old daughter of a missing (meth dealing) father. Teardrop is the character with the awakening, however fatalistic his final decisions and awareness. We leave Teardrop (in an astonishing performance by John Hawkes) much as we left Malik at the end of Un Prophet. The barely audible utterance of Teardrop at the end, “I know. I know who.” is stunning and chilling and transcends all that came before in a sense. It is coupled to the comment Ree makes, (which Harvey quoted, “I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back”) shortly after this. This is filmic poetry and it achieves the level of tragedy because of its awareness of the fatalistic nature of life, of its fragility and of how ephemeral are our ties to conventions of family and parenthood and especially to responsibility. It is not, however, the bourgeois notion of responsibility, as trotted out almost compulsively (and daily, if not hourly) in mainstream storytelling and news and advertising. It is much more Old Testament, more Jobian in a sense, and certainly more unforgiving and hard edged. Forgiveness is almost unaffordable, a luxury, and outside this bare landscape. There are verdicts and there is always punishment, and there is often duty (even if forced), but there are no hurt feelings or narcissism here. As winter decends on the countryside, the choices are even more tempered with a controlled desperation—from hunger and the potential, as Ree says, that she and her younger siblings just go to the field and die like dogs. The scene on the lake is chilling, certainly, but is more about the pragmatism of all involved. It is, very much like the final scene of Gary Oldman’s great Nil By Mouth. One must get on with one’s life, with eating and breathing.

What I found most remarkable about this film was the absence of any intellectual slumming. Granik respects these people and even the most crack addled and physically emaciated character is presented as not just human, but divine. We are all god’s children, and all lost in the wilderness.

—John Steppling

Interesting you bring up Levinas here, John. “The face is always naked,” is another quote that comes to mind. And I was thinking about Levinas when I wrote Great Things and Jimmy asks Chimi to look into his face and she tells him it says “do not hurt me.” Not to compare that short play to what Granik has pulled off. Levinas’ devoted himself to redeeming Heidegger and bridging the gap between ontology and ethics, which sounds much more high falutin’ than it is. Stephen Batchelor is always citing Levinas as the Western thinker who comes closest to a Buddhist view of how Self and Other relate to each other. But maybe that’s a different conversation.

Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanon Cty., VA 1970.

One of my favorite scenes in Winter’s Bone is when she goes and talks to the Marine Corps recruiter. There’s no condescension anywhere in the performances or in the film making and it truly is a staggering look at how different that Red State mindset can be. Mostly Scots-Irish, the Appalachian people arrived last in the four great waves of immigration from Britain. Studies show their values remain remarkably consistent with those that dominated the war ground that separates England and Scotland. They went to Ireland first and picked up the “Irish” in Scots-Irish. They are the product of centuries of war back and forth from North to South as Britain formed, and their values are in-bred, suspicious of outsiders, clan-like and given to violence. They settled down across the Appalachians and into Kansas and Texas…and then many of them moved to So-Cal and some of them ran for Mayor of Los Angeles and got elected, etc.

The specter of intra-clan violence, the blood-feud, hovers above the story in Winter’s Bone. The compassion the women around Thump show Ree breaches the silence that kept Teardrop at bay. The sense we have at the close is that now the fur will fly and it won’t be pretty. Teardrop will now have to avenge Jessup and the tit-for-tat will start up. Ree’s younger brother might well need those shooting skills down the road. It’s a Biblical world, in a way, yes. These people have managed to hold on to a kind of vitality the world around them has been civilized out of. Consequence surrounds them, comes with the terrain. But while I’m rhapsodizing I can’t stop wishing these people made it a little harder for the minions of the very wealthy to manipulate and control them. Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheny and Rush Limbaugh have them dancing on a string…though maybe that won’t last.

Ree kept reminding me Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I went looking for this quote where she’s described as having a ferocious strength that stays close always to the ground. Pretty remarkable performance and, yeah, a great film.

I want to add that one of the many great things about Hawkes’ performance is how much Teardrop knows. He knows his brother fucked up—he did right year after year and then one day he fucked up. He knows it’s much better he never learn who killed Jessup too, because he knows he’ll be forced to act by big forces in the world that he respects. Hawkes conveys all that and all he has to say is that his brother played banjo so well and we know the primal blood connection has been sealed. This is the thing about violence, blood. The self arises in response to the other and in social connection that artificial boundary begins to go away…compassion becomes possible, a communal presence… But blood seals the reification, making self and other fixed entities in perpetual conflict. This is the nightmare threat that’s never far enough away…

—Guy Zimmerman

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2 responses to “Winter’s Bone and the Tragic

  1. What I found refreshing about the film was the lack of the Oprah-esque. The women don’t bond. They do what they have to do and they give each other space. The women are the ones who beat Ree when she trespasses onto their territory.

    To me the ending is tragic comic, and when I say comic, I do not mean hahah-funny. In the end, Ree reaches an understanding about how her life will continue. She will raise the kids. She will keep the world going.

  2. What a great film and review! I think John Hawkes was also in Crazy like a Fox, another film that explores rural morality.

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