An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Life in a Shatter Zone: Debra Granik's Film Winter's Bone

Michael Moon and Colin Talley, Emory University

Published: 
6 December 2010
Overview: 

In their review of the 2010 independent film Winter’s Bone, Michael Moon and Colin Talley draw upon the concept of the “shatter zone” in order to illuminate the local features of the film as well as to locate its place in the history of hill regions as sites of refuge and resistance. This review finds additional contexts for the film in regional music and the long-established "dark-fairytale" tradition of the Appalachians and the Ozarks.

Spoiler alert: this review contains details of the plot.

 

Review:

Dolly home, Winter's Bone, 2010
Dolly home, Winter's Bone, 2010.

Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone (2010) tells the story of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly, big sister and stand-in parent to two younger siblings. She is the daughter of a catatonic mother and a meth-cooking father who has not only disappeared with the law hot on his tail, but—Ree learns at the beginning of the film—has put the family’s house and land up as part of his bail bond.

Ree’s determination to find her father, dead or alive, enrages some of the meanest members of the Dolly clan, who have their own pressing reasons for not wanting anyone to solve the mystery of Jessup Dolly’s disappearance. Ree is repeatedly warned not to “trouble” male kinfolk such as family patriarch Thump Milton Dolly (a white-bearded man who wears heavy biker regalia). When she refuses to stop pushing for an answer, these warnings culminate in her being severely beaten by Thump’s wife Mareb and Mareb’s sisters.

Ree’s beating turns the plot of the story. Soon, the three women turn up on the front porch of Ree’s family’s imperiled home, this time offering to take her to where she’ll find her father. In an eerily powerful scene of movement in a small boat across a moonlit swamp, the women bring Ree to the freezing shallows where her father’s body has been hidden. At their direction, she pulls his corpse partly out of the water and, weeping, holds his rigid arms while Mareb chainsaws off both hands—providing Ree with the evidence of her father’s death that she needs to save the house and land.

Many viewers have found the scenes of Ree’s beating (along with the sight of her bloody and battered condition afterwards) and the sawing of her father’s hands shattering to behold. In relation to this kind of response, we have been struck in viewing and re-viewing the film by the highly effective ways that the filmmakers and performers have found of enacting a range of painful and pleasurable aspects of living in what some contemporary anthropologists and political theorists call a “shatter zone.”

Landscape, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Landscape, Winter's Bone, 2010.

The term “shatter zone” originated in nineteenth-century geology, to mean “a belt of randomly fissured or cracked rock that may be filled with mineral deposits.” Its meaning shifted dramatically after World War II when it began to be used in political geography to denote borderlands, especially ones to which members of subject or refugee populations migrated in large numbers to escape the pressures of the state and/or the capitalist economies through which the state exerted itself.

Agrarian studies scholar James C. Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), analyzes the political history of numerous large-scale hill communities down to the present as “shatter zones,” places of resistance to and refuge from some of the most destructive effects of state-making and state-rule. Shatter zones, he writes, “are found wherever the expansion of states, empires, slave-trading, and wars, as well as natural disasters, have driven large numbers of people to seek refuge in out-of-the-way places.”1 Scott adduces as examples of “shatter zones” such places as Yunnan, the southwestern province of China; the corridor of highland Africa that was safe from slave-raiding; and the Balkans and the Caucasus—and also many sites in the Americas: Amazonia, the “Great Dismal Swamp” at the borders of Virginia and North Carolina, and Appalachia.

For comparatists with one foot in the United States and/or the southern regions of the United States, University of Mississippi ethnohistorian Robbie Ethridge’s work brings the concept of the “shatter zone” to bear on the history of contact between settlers and Native peoples, in such projects as the collection she co-edited with Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South (2009). Winter’s Bone, we believe, offers an intimate close-up of some of the difficulties and suffering but also some of the intense and enduring pleasures of life in one contemporary “shatter zone.”

Clothesline, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Clothesline, Winter's Bone, 2010.

Director Debra Granik (b. 1963) grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and is a graduate of the NYU film program. Winter’s Bone is her second film. Her first was Down to the Bone (2004), set in a decaying small town in upstate New York, in which a young woman with two small sons, a marriage gone flat, and a job checking out groceries, struggles with cocaine addiction. Everything seems newly rosy when she enters rehab and falls in love with a male nurse, until he starts using again and both of them fall off the wagon. Despite obvious differences of plot and setting, between the first and second film, viewing Granik’s Down to the Bone reveals features of her aesthetic and political commitments that also shine through Winter’s Bone: her intense, sometimes painfully close, focus on a young woman engaged in an uphill struggle with life circumstances in which drugs and addiction play a determining role, and the setting of both narratives in a winter landscape that powerfully mirrors and intensifies the cold bleakness of aspects of the protagonists’ lives.

Home interior, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Home interior, Winter's Bone, 2010.

Even more than Granik’s first film, Winter’s Bone is saturated with manifestations of the particular locale in which it is set and was filmed: language, imagery, music, and casting. It was shot on location in two Missouri Ozark counties, Taney and Christian. Taney County sits right on the Missouri-Arkansas border and Christian County directly above Taney. The homes that Ree’s and the other Dolly families inhabit are decorated with a dense array of mementos and decorative objects, many contributed by local residents. Granik mentions on the director’s commentary track on the DVD of the film that the many dogs of various shapes and sizes that wander through several scenes were the dogs attached to the houses and woodlots where the film was shot. The town near Ree’s family’s home where she takes her siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, to school is represented by Forsyth, Missouri, and its K-through-12 public school. Ree is not the only young person whose options appear to be pretty narrow: judging from the film, two main courses of study in the local high school are ROTC and infant-care-and-parenting.

Timber acres, Winter's Bone, 2010. Targets, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Timber acres, Winter's Bone, 2010. Targets, Winter's Bone, 2010.

There is a notable tension in the film between often highly kinetic motion sequences and still or nearly-still shots. The film’s still-image aesthetic is resonant with the “high tradition” of documentary and art photography of various hill communities as currently exemplified by the work of Rob Amberg. The director’s and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s concentration on (sometimes complexly patterned) details of behavior and the immediate environment has striking affinities with observational cinema. Besides the conventionally beautiful panoramic shots of the landscape, many “still” images linger in memory, such as objects that Ree’s little sister Ashlee lines up as targets for a squirrel-shooting, rifle lesson.

Target practice, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Target practice, Winter's Bone, 2010.

Many of the performances in Winter’s Bone—including several important ones—are delivered by locals with little or no formal acting training. Several roles depicting the young-adult generation of the extended Dolly family were cast from a young and aspiring actors’ workshop from the area’s college town, West Plains, Missouri. The locals bring a high level of improvisatory energy and emotional openness, calling out similar qualities in the veteran film actors. Items of clothing that the film’s costumer acquired from Ozark residents—such as the painted and sequined deer head sweatshirt that Ree wears in several key scenes – are part of a carefully constructed ecology of the totemic that pervades the film. The hardscrabble ground may not yield much in the way of cash crops or even food for the table, but the woodlands are not only visually beautiful but are also larders of the meat—deer and squirrel—that are hunted, butchered, cooked, and eaten throughout the film. Another “instructional” scene in which Ree demonstrates to her younger siblings how to skin and gut a squirrel, may make some viewers queasy but functions as an integral part of Winter’s Bone’s fascination with the minutiae of survival. The relation between wild game, cooking, and eating is one of the most intimate threads joining the humans and animals that cross the screen, especially as these bind Ree to Sonny and Ashlee. Even the Dolly children’s pets and toy animals bear food names: their family dog is called “Peanut Butter,” and Ashlee has named her two toy horses “Cupcake” and “Brownie.”

Ree in deer head sweatshirt, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Ree in deer head sweatshirt, Winter's Bone, 2010.

In several scenes set in the interior of the family’s home, Ree, her siblings, and their mother carry on ordinary activities while gospel tunes and public service announcements about doings at the local Freewill Baptist Church play softly on the radio. But the “religion” that is much in evidence in the film is a fierce devotion to collective survival as this manifests itself in the cycle that binds domestic and wild animals, family broadly defined, recurrent violence, and the putting aside of at least some of the potential consequences of that violence. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott comments that many inhabitants of the upland shatter zones he studies, while outwardly more or less honoring the major “salvation religion” of their lowland neighbors (such as Buddhism or Christianity), are actually animists by practice and by faith—i.e., they believe that animals, natural objects (such as rocks, rivers, and mountains), and natural phenomena (such as thunder) may be infused with spirit. Ree Dolly and her relatives, with their totem-animal sweatshirts, bear-claw pendants, mounted deer heads, and freshly butchered game on display inside and outside the house, exude a contemporary animist faith of sorts. In the demanding and sometimes cruel code of honor that even the most “outlaw” members of the extended Dolly family persist in enforcing on themselves we have some measure of their faith in their ability to regulate community behavior, and some measure of their distance from the state and its legal representatives, such as the film’s two key “outsider” characters, the local sheriff and the bail bondsman.

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Fairytale Noir:

Director Debra Granik has commented that when she attended screenings of Winter's Bone in Germany and Scandinavia, viewers often asked about the “dark-fairytale” qualities of the film. But just plain grim or Grimm-style fairytales (known to folklorists as Märchen) have flourished as a traditional form not only in Norway or the Black Forest; they have long enjoyed popularity in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Scholars and ethnographers have made some of the richest and most extensive collections of such tales in these two mountainous regions.

Moonlit swamp, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Moonlit swamp, Winter's Bone, 2010.

The “grim” fairytale, like the story Winter’s Bone tells, is distinguished by its bloodiness, its bleakness, and the relentlessness with which its child-protagonists, often girls or young women, are subjected to violence and oppression. Tales of young heroines who get abandoned or abused by cruel parents and physically assaulted by their opponents, the sight of flayed or disemboweled bodies (both human and animal), moonlight crossings of cold waters—these are the often sad, bleak, ghoulish and gory elements of many of these stories, including that of Winter’s Bone. But, sometimes, these tales are also distinguished by the resourcefulness and resilience with which their young protagonists surprise both their elders and their enemies by snatching from daunting circumstances some kind of victory—if only the victory of surviving against what had seemed potentially overwhelming odds.

Winter’s Bone is adapted from a 2006 novel of the same title by Missouri Ozarks resident Daniel Woodrell, who has specialized in what he calls “country noir.” Readers familiar with his 1996 novel, Give Us a Kiss, may be surprised at the gravity with which the extended Dolly clan is represented in both the novel and film versions of Winter’s Bone. In the earlier novel various members of the Dolly family also appear as characters, but there they conform fairly closely to comic stereotype, as “backwood thugs” ready to rumble and feud at the drop of a beer bottle. In contrast, in Winter’s Bone, numerous members of the family enact something much closer to the full range of “human, all too human” behaviors, including fierce aggression at times, but also a love of their land and the life it affords them and an often complex relation to the conflicting demands of survival, personal autonomy, and family loyalty.

According to recent scholarship on the long survival of the “dark fairytale” in the Ozarks, what particularly marks the local tradition is that these narratives of youngsters encountering and sometimes facing down intimidating levels of evil and violence are told more often in parodic or satirical form than as “straight,” hero-versus-villain, kinds of stories. Novelist Woodrell participates in this double tradition when he emphasizes the comic, even farcical aspects of the Dolly family’s determination to survive and thrive in one of his novels and brings out the dignity and pathos of their response to their situation in another.

Musicians, Winter's Bone, 2010.
Musicians, Winter's Bone, 2010.

The film makes no direct reference to its kinship to the Märchen tradition of the Ozarks and Appalachia, but through its deployment of local music, it draws deeply and steadily on another significant regional art form. The film inaugurates its highly expressive minimalist aesthetic in its opening moments not only with outdoor shots of the Dolly family’s house and land but with the sound of local musician Marideth Sisco singing “Missouri Waltz” quietly but insistently, and without instrumental accompaniment. A house party at which Sisco and some friends of hers are playing and singing (“High on a Mountain” and “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies”) is the most extended lyrical sequence in the film. Seeing these kinds of connections may help viewers understand how Winter’s Bone succeeds in drawing together what might otherwise have been its irreconcilable energies—the shattering violence of some scenes, the lyrical peacefulness and pleasurableness of others. The film participates in Ozark cultural practices in which laughter and pathos, grief and joy, are expressive of complexly patterned relations. Singer Sisco, who is also a cultural journalist and regional-heritage activist and planner, serves as a direct link between the film and the traditions which serve as a rich context for the gritty but also beautiful “winter’s tale” that Granik’s film tells.

Winter’s Bone deserves close study for its ability to draw on techniques of the regional documentary tradition while availing itself of the narrative energy of commercial film genres. From reviews that appeared around the film’s opening, one sees what a Rorschach test the film is for critics. Many understand it as a well-made suspense thriller and/or mystery, others as a successful example of the coming-of-age film, or as extending the tradition of the western, with a young woman protagonist on a contemporary frontier overcoming violent opposition to save the “homestead.” Reviewers have praised Winter’s Bone for the energy with which it challenges the stereotype of the dangerous and degenerate “hillbilly clan” (remember Deliverance?) and puts human faces (sometimes ferocious, sometimes tender) on meth dealers and tough matrons who can (and sometimes do) knock your teeth out—but who may then turn around and help you out at considerable risk to themselves. The film, in its depiction of the pleasures as well as the pains of Ree Dolly's—and her in-many-ways-shattered community's—existence, takes high risks of its own, not least of all in suggesting that for all the difficulties of life, past and present, in this particular shatter zone, some good things find ways of enduring.

 

About the Authors:

Michael Moon is professor and director of American Studies, Institute of the Liberal Arts, Emory University. Colin Talley is assistant research professor, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.

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Recommended Resources:

Print Materials:
Ethridge, Robbie Franklyn and Sheri Marie Shuck-Hall. Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Lindahl, Carl. “Sounding a Shy Tradition: Oral and Written Styles of American Mountain Märchen.” Journal of Folklore Research 38 (Jan-Aug 2001), 68-98.

Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Randolph, Vance. Unprintable Ozark Folksongs and Folklore. Ed. G. Legman. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Video/Audio:
Winter's Bone
http://www.wintersbonemovie.com

Winter's Bone: Music from the Motion Picture. Cinewax. October 26, 2010. Soundtrack compact disc.

Links:
Campbell, Brian C. “'Closest to Everlastin'': Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions.Southern Spaces, September 20, 2010.
http://southernspaces.org/2010/closest-everlastin-ozark-agricultural-biodiversity-and-subsistence-traditions.

Kohn, Eric. “Drama in Absence: Debra Granik's 'Winter’s Bone.'Indie Wire, June 7, 2010.
http://www.indiewire.com/article/review_drama_in_absence_winters_bone/#.

Scott, A.O. “Where Life Is Cold, and Kin Are Cruel.New York Times, June 11, 2010.
http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/movies/11winter.html.

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  • 1. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 8.