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.