winter’s bone, and plot vs. character.

I finally watched Winter’s Bone last night.  What a haunting, well-acted, unsettling movie.

The subject matter of the film is not something that makes people go “Hey, honey—let’s rent this one for a fun evening.”  It’s about a 17-year-old girl living a hardscrabble life in the Missouri Ozarks—out in the poverty-ridden sticks, where crank has replaced moonshine as the central part of the local economy.  Her meth-cooking father goes missing after putting up the family property for his bond, and Ree, the protagonist, sets out to find him.  The local culture of honor and silence means that she runs the risk of (as her meth-using, violent uncle puts it) “ending up as hog feed, or wishing you was.”

It’s not a fast-paced action flick by any stretch of the imagination, but it drew me in right away, and lingered in my mind for quite a while.  The lead actress (Jennifer Lawrence, who got an Oscar nomination for the role) is unbelievably good.  Whatever honors the movie collects, I’m pretty sure she has a stellar career ahead of her.  The actor who plays Teardrop, the uncle, also deserves to win one of those golden dudes.  His character isn’t muscled or otherwise physically intimidating, but he’s so believably hard and dangerous that you completely understand the locals’ fear of him.  (I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a scene that takes place between Ree, Teardrop, and the local Sheriff on a rural road in the middle of the night that is the best piece of understated, powerful acting I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time.)

“Winter’s Bone” was also a nice refresher in what I think is the primary rule of good storytelling.  You need to have a protagonist worth caring about.  By that, I don’t necessarily mean that your protagonist has to be likeable, but he or she has to be interesting enough for the reader or viewer to care about what happens next.  A strong character can salvage a book with a weak plot, but if we don’t give a crap about the protagonist, the best plot can’t save the story.  When you put your hero or heroine in peril, and the reader says, “Why the hell should I care?”, then your story is pretty much dead.

7 thoughts on “winter’s bone, and plot vs. character.

  1. Gary Lee-Nova says:

    For me, you’ve nailed this movie, Marko.

    It’s simultaneously challenging with its grim content, and fascinating to watch and listen to how the characters behave.

    Also agree with your opinion on Jennifer Lawrence – a very talented young lady.

    Thank you for the report. It’s not an easy movie to talk to others about, unless they have seen it.

  2. Bobby Hunter says:

    I am a cashier at the Tanycomo Market in Rockaway Beach, Missouri where one scene was filmed (I am also a CCW instructor). In the scene, 3 guys stood in front of the store and yelled at one of the other characters in the story (the same guy who smashed the car window at the bar next door). They told me I could stand in front of the cash register if I wanted to, but I felt silly standing there with no customers so I just got out of the way. Looking back at it now, I should have been mopping the floor or something. My ugly mug would be in a movie🙂

    Some observations. It takes a really long time to film just one scene in a movie. They spent ALL DAY at the Upper Deck (the bar next door where some of it was filmed). A lot of locals that were in this movie (including Rick Redding who’s band played in the bar) thought this was going to be their big break which it wasn’t. Really, nothing much happened. They came. They made a movie. They went. And the town went back to sleep.

    I still haven’t seen the movie but everyone says it is excellent. It will be interesting to see how many people and places I recognize.

    • The Other Jay says:

      Ree’s determination to hold her family together set against a bleak background and an impossible task is wrenching. I almost came unglued at the scene at the lake.
      Jennifer Lawrence is terrific indeed. Also see her in “The Poker House” by Lori Petty.

  3. falnfenix says:

    When you put your hero or heroine in peril, and the reader says, “Why the hell should I care?”, then your story is pretty much dead.

    This is precisely why I couldn’t get through Avatar (and plenty of other movies). So few movies have any semblance of good writing that it’s rarely worth it to spend the ridiculous sum to sit in a theater with bad seats and a sticky floor.

    I’ll wait until this is on DVD, but I will most certainly give it a go. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • falnfenix says:

      …Actually, ignore that. I wasn’t aware it was out on DVD – haven’t paid attention to what’s in theaters lately.

  4. Tam says:

    You’re, like, the second or third person whose opinion I trust to give this a thumbs-up; reckon I’ll have to watch it.

  5. Montie says:

    Tam,

    I have enjoyed a number of movies via your recommendation, so let me return the favor and recommend this one to you.

    Having worked in a similar environment for a period of time here in NE Oklahoma a few years ago, in which Meth was the major product of the local economy, I have dealt with a number of people who could have been dropped right into many of the roles in the movie, including those of Ree and Teardrop. It was hauntingly realistic to me from that point of view, and the landscape and environment were so close to those of my experience that it became almost uncomfortable to watch, knowing the positives and negatives I had contributed to the lives of people very much like those in the movie.

    No big action flick, but a well acted piece of Americana, intimately connected to much of the rural area in this part of the country, and reflective of the grim bleakness that the meth problem has wrought in people’s lives.

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