Winter’s Bone

By

A poetic, hard, empathizing look at a rugged community in the Ozarks, where almost everyone you know is related in some way, and meth–cooking it, distributing it, and using it–surrounds you.

rodney_clapp
In “Lonesomeness and Community,” the second chapter of Rodney Clapp’s excellent book, Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction, he writes about Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919), who lived in Walden Ridge, near Chattanooga, TN, my hometown. Growing up in the Appalachians, among “quintessential hillbillies,” her parents–who were educators–reared her as a cultivated woman, and were against her marriage at a young age to “a native hillbilly.” For the rest of her life, she straddled the two worlds, living among her husband’s people on one hand, and yet making regular visits to her wealthy and cultured friends in Chattanooga. She wrote essays about her surroundings and friends, published in magazines such as Harper’s Monthly, and in books–The Spirit of the Mountains was published in 1905–that contained moving, compassionate, and insightful glimpses into her world.

Clapp, describing her work, writes: “Miles recognized that the “luxuries” of the hill folk were “all romances,” and included “music, whiskey, firelight, religion, and fighting.” …Noting that her Appalachian neighbors had no theaters, bullfights, or sports arenas, Miles said of music that “it is their one emotional outlet.” Commenting on the nasally, high-lonesome vocalization of the mountain singer, she remarked that “the oddly changing keys, the endings that leave the ear in expectation of something to follow, the quavers and falsettos, become in recurrence a haunting hint of the spirit-world; neither beneficent nor maleficent, neither devil nor angel – something not to be understood, yet to be certainly apprehended.” Hillbillies, if I may respectfully resort to that term, did not theologize very explicitly, corralling spiritual realities or perceptions into systematized categories and giving them Latinate names. Nor did they complain, not in general, and certainly not about their lonesomeness in particular. But in their music they felt free to acknowledge loneliness and other pains, even to weep openly in the company of others. Loneliness is admitted and alleviated in church, where preaching and especially singing express grief and separation and long-felt agony in a way not otherwise noted in the stoic mountaineer’s life. Here is Miles at church, singing along and looking about:

“Tears are running down seamed and withered faces now, as the repression and loneliness of many months finds relief; the tune changes again, and yet again – they do not tire of this… [In these songs about meeting deceased fathers and mothers in heaven, the singers anticipate] Broken ties restored, old pain of lonely nights to be no more – that is the dearest promise of this religion; the aching of old grief suddenly caught up and whirled away in this aroused hope of glory. ‘By-and-by we’ll go and see them…’ Did ever Israel captive peer into the future any more wistfully than these?”

So what does any of this have to do with Winter’s Bone, the new movie from writer/director Debra Granik? Maybe not much, but for me, it provided a context for the part of the movie that left me stunned, sitting speechless in my seat for several minutes after everyone else had left the theatre… but let me back up for a minute.

Winter’s Bone is based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name. Set in the Ozarks, where Woodrell grew up, the story follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as she tries to locate her father, who had recently been released from jail after posting bond, just before his court date to face charges of cooking meth. Ree finds out that her father has put up the house that she and the rest of her family live in and if he doesn’t show up for the trial, they will lose their home. With the family already riding the fine line between barely subsisting and having nothing at all, and with nothing to fall back on, Ree knows they won’t make it without the house.

Because Daniel Woodrell was writing about the culture he grew up in and lives in and because the movie adheres pretty closely to the book (I’ve heard), the story never strikes a false note. It was filmed on location in the Ozarks, and in fact, the little girl playing the younger sister of the main character actually lives in the house many of the scenes take place in. In the last act of the film, there were three or four times I was afraid the story would follow the path of a typical Hollywood film, offering some kind of easy resolution or contrived climax, but instead it went where the story needed to go. The ending itself is absolutely perfect.

But make no mistake, this is a dark film. Peering into the underbelly of an insular culture where the distrust of outsiders-even when they are family-is compounded by the secrecy surrounding a drug culture means that you won’t find a story filled with bright, sunny, fields and flying unicorns. It is hard not to see parallels between shots of cattle and the way women are treated in that culture, and it’s hard not to wonder where God is in a story like this. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of grace, though. At one point Ree offers up an incredible statement about the joy and the burden of love, telling her two younger siblings “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.”

Flannery O’Connor, in a statement that seems like it could have been behind the making of this film, once wrote: “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

Returning to my opening, here’s where I made the connection with Emma Bell Miles’ words about the role of music in the lives of her friends and family:  the first song that plays over the end credits is sung by Marideth Sisco, a woman who made an appearance earlier in the movie, at a “singing.” Here, at the conclusion of the story, the choice of songs is Farther Along, an old gospel tune that, in light of what I had just seen, overwhelmed me. It gave me a richer appreciation for the story, and reminded me again of the hope of the Gospel, the promise that, one day, all things will be made new.


11 Comments

  1. Amy

    You know, I’m glad you told me about the music before I saw this, because I really think that it added a depth of understanding for myself as I watched.

    I was also really struck by that quote you pulled…I thought it was beautiful and honest.

    Thanks for the great review.

  2. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    That perfectly describes the older bluegrass and old-time music. It was rooted in experience, heart, longing, doubt, hope. Many of the songs are about death and reuniting with loved ones. Some of the newer music retains some of the outer form of the music, but in our rapidly changing culture it has lost some of its heart. For anyone who is interested in listening, here’s a partial list of artists connected with that older music:

    The Carter Family (precursor to much bluegrass)
    The Stanley Brothers (very mountainish)
    Bill Monroe (formed the first bluegrass band with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, which is some of his best music – 1946 era)
    Flatt & Scruggs (broke away to form their own band, Earl being the prototype for all bluegrass banjo)
    Reno & Smiley (Red Smiley was a great singer)
    Jimmy Martin (exuberant bluegrass, usually with cracking banjo players)

    Later forms of bluegrass as it began to mix with popular music:
    The Country Gentlemen (began to introduce more complex songs from writers outside bluegrass)
    J.D. Crowe and the New South (the Rounder album from 1975 is a major benchmark in bluegrass recorded history, with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas)

    Tony Rice took bluegrass and often mixed it with jazz concepts. Most of his recordings were benchmarks as well. Manzanita, Church Street Blues, Cold on the Shoulder, Me and My Guitar, Native American are all must-haves.

    Starting in 1980, Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks, and Todd Phillips (and later Jerry Douglas) began making a series of recordings on Rounder called The Bluegrass Album (Volume 1, 2, etc). They are re-recordings of the old songs from Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe, etc, and they really capture the spirit of bluegrass.

    More old-time – Dock Boggs is a must-have. Doc Watson, too. Norman Blake. Roscoe Holcomb. Tommy Jarrell for old-time fiddle.

    As time goes on I find myself listening more and more to the old music. It seems much more connected to the heart than a lot of modern music; much of it was music made before music was merely another option in a vast sea of commercial commodities.

    Not to hijack the thread, but I loved the music quote. I’ll definitely see the movie based on this review.

  3. Profile photo of Thomas McKenzie

    Thomas McKenzie

    @thomas

    The music is one of the best things about this film. Listening to an interview with the film makers, I was exposed through this movie to a tradition I was only vaguely aware of.

    Unlike Stephen, I disbelieved the last 15 minutes or so of this film. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t get into why. However, most people who love films LOVE this one. I’m very glad for Stephen’s words, and I do hope our readers will see this movie at some point. It is completely worth seeing for all the reasons that Stephen points out.

  4. Stephen

    Ron, thanks for the link to that paper. I read it last night. It serves as a nice companion piece to another book I’m in the middle of, Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 book Social Sources of Denominationalism. It’s helpful to look at a subject like that through several different lenses. And thanks for that list of musicians.

    I do highly recommend Rodney Clapp’s book. Here’s another excerpt from Rodney’s book that I was going to include in my review, but cut it because it was getting too long. This follows the excerpt he quotes of Emma Bell Miles:
    “…The unguarded emotionalism of the singer and the music is not the typical expression of an uncouth rube who constantly lets fly with yips and yaws each and every ripple of feeling, but it is the piercing sound of a pressure valve released only in song by an otherwise stoic and taciturn people. Likewise, the sometimes exaggerated, florid, pitiful, even self-mocking lyrics do not echo the early or organic country singer’s everyday language offstage. Instead, the lyrics are the stunning, comparatively verbose and articulate statement of people who otherwise declare their preferences or hurt or yearnings monosyllabically, briefly, and bluntly, if at all.”

  5. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    I’m glad you liked the music, Thomas. The singer featured in the film has a blog where she talks about how much of a surprise the success of the movie has been, and what is was like working on the music for the film.

    My great-great-great grandparents lived in the mountains of west Tennessee, and because of a family reunion about ten years ago where we explored the area they lived in, there were a lot of settings and relationships in the film that instantly looked familier, and maybe made it easier for me to believe what happened in the story.

  6. Jim Sanders

    Very well written and thoughtful review, Stephen. The film was excellent, and I really enjoyed the music as well. I also thought the book you referenced was very thought-provoking, and brings out the mindset of the “mountain people” in a compassionate way. My parents both come from the southern Missouri Ozarks. Fortunately, their heritage is more expressed in the music and not the kind of criminal activities depicted in the film! My aunt wrote a book set in the Civil War based on some of my ancestors, and there are many rich stories in the hills, to be sure.

  7. Sarah Denton

    On behalf of Marideth Sisco, thank you for the interesting and moving write-up. I will link this to her blog. The movie Winter’s Bone has stirred many people in many ways. Truth of the matter is; very poor people are survivors, they often live outside the boundaries of “regular” society and resort to activities skirting the edge of law. Moonshine preceded meth production and served the same purpose, financial gain… meth is much more destructive as one can see.

    Again; Thank you on behalf of Marideth.

    Sarah, keeper of the blog, maridethsisco.com

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *