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“Winter’s Bone” and the image of the Ozarks

This summer, people around the country will be seeing the movie version of Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, “Winter’s Bone.” They’ll wonder if the movie shows life in the Ozarks as it really is. The movie was filmed in Taney and Christian counties in Southwest Missouri, during the winter of 2009. You can see the trailer and read a synopsis of the plot.

This movie, with its glowing reviews and big success at the Sundance Film Festival, raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • Why do independent filmmakers focus on the gritty part of life, often including drugs and violence?
  • Why do movies like “Winter’s Bone” provoke discussions about authenticity?

Comments to today’s review of the movie in The New York Times address these questions (with the usual pointlessness of online discussions).

I saw “Winter’s Bone” a month ago in Branson, in a private showing in which many members of the cast and production crew were in attendance. I had a chance to visit with some of them and to compliment director-screenwriter Debra Granik on the mostly outstanding performances that she got from the actors.

Ms. Granik told me that she chose “Winter’s Bone” because of its strong characterizations and plot, not because of the grim subject matter and not because she was interested in depicting people in situations involving poverty, violence and drugs.

Concerning  the depiction of people of the Ozarks as uneducated, violent, and crude, I have to admit that the population includes a segment that is uneducated and violent and who cook and ingest meth. “Winter’s Bone” does not pretend that these are the only people of the Ozarks. The characters in the movie are mostly poor and many of them are physically abusive of themselves and others, but they are not treated with condescension or portrayed as stupid.

The Ozarks landscape itself is in its stark late winter beauty. The junky homesteads shown are simply what you see in much of the Ozarks.

Many of the characters show sensitivity and intelligence which they exercise within the bounds of their familial and cultural constraints. If the author or director imposes constraints that seem artificial, the reader or viewer will wonder why the characters did not take other actions.  When you see “Winter’s Bone,” you can figure this out for yourself.

Promoters of the Ozarks will wince at the lack of anything in the movie that would encourage tourism or the movement of jobs to the Ozarks. Occasionally a movie does give a region a short boost, such as “The Bridges of Madison County,” did for Iowa. Can you think of a feature film that was an effective economic development tool?

With “Winter’s Bone,” I’ll remember the characters in a dramatic situations involving conflicts between father and daughter, neighbor and neighbor, older sister and younger sibling, and clan and community.

These conflicts are universal, not regional, and combined with the straightforward plot, steady pacing and good acting, “Winter’s Bone” is a movie that I’ll remember along with “Hud,” and “Days of Heaven.”


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

17 responses »

  1. I read the book, but haven’t seen the movie. I was born in the Missouri Ozarks and have lived here most of my life.

    The poverty and drugs seemed relatively accurate, though I have no experience with the weird sort of mystique that went with this outlaw culture – it was a little over the top melodramatic, like a hillbilly mafia story for me, though I can see how this might make a very good movie. And I did enjoy the book, I just thought the family/mystic sort of stuff with the poor folks wasn’t very accurate.

    Another problem I see is that it was just sort of an action story, relatively simple, set in some sort of poor hilly place, and I didn’t thing it captured the uniqueness of the Ozarks culture.

    I don’t want to sound to critical of the book because I enjoyed it and would recommend it. I like the fact that something about the ozarks was so popular.

    However, if you want to read fiction that captures the essence of what makes the Ozarks the Ozarks – I would recommend Donald Harington.

    I look forward to seeing the movie.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for writing.

      “Winter’s Bone” might be a better as a movie than as a novel. I once heard Larry McMurtry say something like “minor novels make better movies than great novels.” If I remember correctly, he was talking partly about his first novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” that was the basis for the movie “Hud.” A major work of literature is likely to be too complex in plot to translate easily to the screen. Of course there are a few exceptions.

      The movie “Winter’s Bone” has a fairly simple story (Ree has to find her father, alive or dead, to save the home she shares with her mother and siblings). The quality of the script and the acting make the film memorable.

      I agree with you that “Winter’s Bone” is not about the Ozarks, but a drama set in the Ozarks. The same story could have been set in many locations.

  2. I have to agree with Harry when he said that it might be better as a movie then a novel because of the visualizations that can come to life when it is on the big screen. That is how I feel about a lot of movies that are through the Sundance circuit. Interesting though.

  3. Dale Muckerman

    I enjoyed your blog entry on Winter’s Bone. Though I haven’t lived in the Ozarks, I think the squalor depicted is found in other parts of Missouri as well. I enjoyed the movie a lot. One thing I had to wonder about the story was how it seems everybody seemed somehow related to everyone else. It seemed a lot worse than in any Faulkner novel I’ve read!

    • Since the story was a drama about the relationships within an extended family, it’s no wonder that most of the characters were related.

      Dale, I’d like to show you around Taney County. Come down in the fall.

    • Moving from California to the Ozarks not far from Taney county, One of the first notable characteristics I found was how extensive everyone was related. My son’s friend went with us on a canoe trip as well as a neighbor. Both strangers. They began talking about their aunts and found out they were second cousins. Over and over I have seen this happen. After 5 years here, I just assume everyone is related and then pleasantly surprised if they aren’t.

  4. Based on the book I’m unlikely to pay to see the movie. Way too unnecessarily violent for my tastes, for no apparent reason, one-dimensional and unrealistic. Have seen the trailer, and although Ree is shown in slacks there (dresses in the snow in the book, and a totally unrealistic scene where she takes off wet clothes in a winter cave to get warm (!)) I’m just unsure what the point of this exercise is anyway. Ok, it’s gritty, I’ll give you that. The descriptive writing is very good, but the point is ? At least in the book, the payoff is meager, and I don’t feel anything has really changed, either with her character or the situation.

    The older I get the less I like movies. I prefer my own imagination.

  5. I hope you don’t take offense as I am only compelled to comment through personal philosophy, not malice. I disliked Winter’s Bone for the very reason that I liked Days of Heaven; Terrence Malick’s work tells a story of tragedy and horror while never allowing these things to taint the magic and majesty of the natural world in which they take place, where Winter’s Bone is so intent on its oppressive mood that it permeates the environment leaving no truth beyond the dire human dramas on display. Even while a scene of a harvest being destroyed (in Days of Heaven) allows the viewer to appreciate the human struggle, it simultaneously transcends this struggle to show a profound beauty in the very force that causes it. I would very much like to see a film that utilizes the stark beauty of a winter in the Ozarks without compromising atmosphere for the sake of an attempt at bleak realism. Just my two cents worth of opinion. Cheers and Godspeed.

  6. I loved this movie. I am originally from rural Northern Michigan and now reside in Kentucky. Meth and poverty exist in both places. While I was watching the movie I didn’t think that all of Missouri was like this. I was thinking about all of the places in the USA where these problems exist. Many people in the USA live like this even in the inner cities. We need more movies which focus on the plight of those who struggle.

    • You make a good point, Debra. Meth and other social ills are symptoms of poverty, which exists all over, not just in rural areas or in inner cities.

      On a philosophical level, I wonder what it means to “need more movies which focus on the plight of those who struggle.” By expressing this sentiment, perhaps you are saying that if more people are aware of the plight of those who struggle, we could help those people escape to something better. How best to help is a huge challenge.

  7. I guess I made this comment because I see so much ignorance all over the country about what really goes on anywhere. There is so much misinformation about everything. I saw this movie as an authentic portrayal of people in poverty. Before we can solve problems we need authentic information. More of that would be great!

    • I understand that you are saying that good information about social problems, leading to understanding, is necessary for social problems to be solved. I agree with you.

      But solutions are difficult to craft, even with awareness of the dimensions of problems. Overcoming substance abuse ultimately boils down to the user making the choice to stop and continuing to stop, which seems to be an individual matter, not responsive to most kinds of outside assistance.

    • I believe that addictions are from an inability to deal with your emotions. I am a social worker and I see this over and over. Once the individual learns how to deal with their emotions they don’t need to cope by having an addiction. So I believe that there is outside assistance for substance abusers there just isn’t a lot of availability for treatment, which is a political issue, which more information might remedy.

    • Debra, I’m sure you’ve seen people in the addiction mode respond to therapy. Selling taxpayers on providing therapy for substance abusers, including addicts, is generally less favorable than selling taxpayers on incarceration without therapy. Good arguments can be made that therapy is less expensive and more effective than prison, yet many people want to see some kinds of abusers of some substances punished, not treated.

      I don’t have the answers. I take off my hat to you and others who are working at the personal level.

    • There is a segment of folks in the USA who are so attached to punishment that money or efficacy doesn’t matter. This topic of punishment is actually a big interest of mine. I know a family, he is actually from Missouri, and they punish like crazy. I rarely punish, kids can learn without it and I use the mildest consequences to get my point across when needed, but actually just asking them not to do something works. Anyway, their children are a mess and they have actually gone out of their way to compliment us on our children. Is punishment a big thing in Missouri? I think that it is related to whether you believe that we are born evil and need correction or that we are born pure and need to be kept that way. Yes, the Republican/Democrat divide!

      I”ve been thinking about what you said previously “Meth and other social ills are symptoms of poverty” and I have to disagree with this. Addictions (all of them, not just drugs and alcohol) are symptoms of social breakdown and dysfuntional families. There are plenty of poor people all over the world who don’t have addictions.

    • On the topics we’ve been discussing, what causes what is a difficult issue, with the difficulty being both in logical analysis and in the pragmatic exercise of trying to come upon solutions that are politically acceptable. I think that Jonathan Haidt’s research and writing and speaking shed a lot of light about the divisions of peoples’ views on punishment and political orientation.

      You have said that addiction is caused by inability to express emotions, yet we can all name people who expressed their emotions with a great deal of articulation who were addicts. And addicts come from privileged backgrounds and apparently families that are not dysfunctional (three siblings not addicted, but one is, for example). Anecdotes aren’t evidence, of course. We all know addicted people from impoverished circumstances with dysfunctional families, too. Most people, regardless of economic and social circumstances, are not addicted to substances.

      Meth seems to be prevalent among rural poor, which is what I was talking about, though I didn’t express it well. A couple of decades ago, crack cocaine ravaged urban poor communities. Possibly people from more affluent circumstances are more likely to be addicted to prescription painkillers and the alcohol found in vintage wines and single-malt scotches. Availability and social acceptability are factors in the choice of substances. Punishment varies, too, as crack cocaine possession carries stiff prison sentences while possession of prescribed drugs by addicts is not illegal.

      After this digression, getting back to “Winter’s Bone,” I sat with a group of attorneys in the county where it was filmed. Those who had seen it seemed to think it faithfully portrayed the lives of a segment of the local population that spends a lot of time at the courthouse dealing with law enforcement and issues relating to physical abuse and child welfare.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    • Understanding addicts needs to be done at the personal level. You need to talk to each addict to understand them. I have never come across a person with addictions who did not have emotional stuff to sort out. You might have seen an addict expressing emotions but I guess I need to make myself clearer, they need to be able to work through their emotions effectively. Ranting about your feelings does not indicate this at all. A privileged family does not correlate with a functional family, not at all! I don’t know how many people that I have listened to who told me that their family was very highly regarded in the community but no one had any idea what went on behind closed doors. You can’t judge a family’s functionality from the outside. You have to talk to the members and observe from the inside.

      The fact that you correlated child abuse/neglect with these people points to the issue of family dysfunction.

      Yes, a solution that is politically acceptable. Mental health issues and family dysfunction cost our society so much – law enforcement/incarceration, education problems, health problems, etc. We would much rather spend billions on what isn’t working then spend a fraction of the money on what would work.

      Simple home visits by the health department during pregnancy to educate and support families until the child starts school saves a lot of money on health care, education and law enforcement. This has been proven with studies of these programs. Just getting the baby to be full term with this support saves thousands in hospital costs. Teaching these mothers parenting skills saves on education.

      But we would rather do it the hard way…………….

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