This volatility is just one of the ways in which Winter’s Bone reaches beyond common drama and into documentary. Everything in the Ozark town is crumbling, just like the relationships of its inhabitants. Frosty landscapes are punctuated with smoke-filled interiors and a trippy black-and-white sequence of wildlife shots.
This movie’s strength is its subtlety. Wild squirrels seem to be metaphors for the humans, because just like the animals are nervous and edgy, full of fear that the woods will be destroyed, so too are the humans wary as they understand that their community is falling apart under the influence of drugs. Moments of strong violence in the plot provoke restless mumblings from audiences, but the scenes are validated by their artistic integrity.
In fact, subtlety might also be the only real weakness of Winter’s Bone. A thick Southern accent renders some characters’ words unintelligible, particularly those of Merab, a meth-hardened matriarch. Because the movie was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, the characters also have histories and relationships that the movie only hints at. Still, Ree’s tale shines through like a shaft of sunlight on a cold day.
Winter’s Bone is not for the faint of heart. The actions and emotions portrayed by Ree are just as raw and bitter as the title suggests. However, the film is unerring in its reality and a piece of cinematic excellence. Ree’s town might be filled with sad men and women who deal crank, but it also has a girl who just wants to keep her family together. That alone can warm away some of the chill.