The Ozark Mountains is a high plateau that stands at the meeting point of the state lines of Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, with the whole being topped off in Missouri by the St Francois Mountains. The plateau was settled by American migration in the early 19th century, who were followed later by a mixture of Irish, Scottish, German and English settlers later in the century. It is the descendents of these groups that still make up the cultural life of the Ozarks.
From the point of view of the film Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) the modern culture of the Ozark’s is now made up of poor, small farmsteads that only seem to be scraping a living from hill and mountainsides. Most of the households have an array of guns at their disposable.
A drug culture flourishes around these farmsteads. Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) tells Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) that her father would still be alive if he had stayed with growing marijuana and not moved in to the production of crystal meth. A drug that is Teardrop’s (John Hawkes) substance of choice. It is the kind of place where the only hope of escape from both the geography and poverty is to join the army. The Ozarks of Winter’s Bone is not a pretty picture.
In fact, the image of the Ozarks and the families living on the hillsides is one of introspection. It is a picture of a community that turns into itself rather then looking outwards towards the wider landscape of American culture. The atmosphere is one of gothic paranoia. Tragedy haunts the iced cold land, and the people’s emotions are as cold as the land. In this land it is better to stay silent and keep quiet, rather then speak out, due to the amount of weaponry that is available in each home and the men and women who are more then willing to use them.
At its chilled heart Winter’s Bone is a study of the relationships between men and women, and the relationship of kin. The men are prone to causal violence, and even the women will carry out a beating if there is need to. These are tight family groups who act together if an outsider threatens. Such as the beating that Merab (Dale Dickey) and her sisters dish out to Ree on Blond Milton’s farm because she has asked too many questions about the disappearance of her father, and was told not to return.
Even though this is the case the men dominate the social scene and the women are subordinate to them. After Ree has been dragged in to the barn by the three sisters it is Blond Milton (William White) and the male relatives of the family who try and decide what should be done with the girl. By the tenor of their conversation it is likely that they will kill Ree. After all, at this stage she has asked far too many questions and will have to be taken care of because she has broken the silence and has got far to close to the truth over what has happened to her father.
It is not what is said by the characters in this film, but what is not said that is most important. Silence covers the culture. Or rather, it is more of a silence backed up by an unspoken threat of violence and even death that underpins the entire narrative.
At many points in the film Ree is told by others that she needs to remain quiet and not ask too many questions about the disappearance of the father. It is a taboo that is imposed upon the culture by those like Blond Milton and family who are more then willing to use violence if the taboo is broken.
It is an exercise in power to stay in control of economic interests, which in this case happens to be the production of crystal meth. Ree fails to keep silence and the violence is applied, and it would seem that her father tried to begin the production of crystal meth and then disappeared. He had stepped upon another’s economic interests and therefore broke the taboo. In the Ozarks silence and violence is a way of keeping others in their place. The family is a group for knowing where you belong.
Winter’s Bone is a fine piece of filmmaking, which enforces the paranoia inherent within the narrative, and has the cold chill of silence rapped around its hard mountain heart.
Here’s the Winter’s Bone trailer: