“Some of our blood at least is the same. Ain’t that supposed to mean something?”
Let me just say up front that I know next to nothing about the people living in the Ozark Mountains. I have never stepped foot in the Ozarks. I have never met a hillbilly. My knowledge of hillbillies comes from The Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance. For me, the word hillbilly conjures up an image of either: 1) a shotgun-toting, moonshine-swigging, rotten-toothed inbred mental defective or 2) Jethro Bodine. I’m sure I’m harboring some serious misconceptions. Still, I have to ask: have the mountain folk of the Ozarks ever spawned a creature as fine as Jennifer Lawrence? Under all that strategically placed grit and grime it’s easy to spot the beauty of a Hollywood starlet – she’s the hottest hillbilly since Elly May Clampett. This is, perhaps, the first indication that the film isn’t as authentic as many critics would have us believe – critics, I’m sure, who have no more real world experience with Ozark hillbillies than I have. Despite all the accolades she’s received, I can’t help but think Lawrence is miscast as 17-year-old hick, Ree Dolly. Her ethereal beauty belies her situation; the role calls for an “earthier” actress.
But that’s a mere quibble. Harder to believe is how mature and responsible Ree is considering her circumstances and upbringing. She lives in poverty. She’s uneducated. Her mother is a mentally ill invalid. Her father, Jessup, is a methamphetamine cooker/dealer. Her uncle, Teardrop, is a mean SOB and a meth-addicted jailbird. And as we come to learn, she is surrounded by murderous neighbors. Yet Ree is a genuine anomaly among all the crazies, druggies and killers, a figure of purity, grace, intelligence and resourcefulness who, despite not benefitting from any parental guidance herself, has assumed the role of family matriarch and taken responsibility for the upbringing of her younger siblings. All this in a godforsaken landscape bleak enough to kill anyone’s spirit: Under perpetually overcast skies, Ree trudges through a barren countryside littered with dilapidated houses, seedy bars, rusted-out cars and burned-out meth labs. Everything around her seems hopeless, lifeless and unhealthy, with monochrome-gray photography to match the wintry desolation. (One of the film’s undeniable pluses is Michael McDonough’s evocative location photography, which effectively captures the bleakness of this environment; it’s a key factor in selling the film’s purported “authenticity”).
Granik, however, doesn’t bother to provide any insight into how Ree blossomed into such an admirable young lady amid such an unnurturing environment. She just did. She just is. Somehow she’s turned out to be an inspiring example for all – a truly special gal. But such a simplistic portrait only ensures that Ree seems less like a credible flesh and blood character than a symbol of the “indomitability of the human spirit” – a trite idea borrowed from a thousand Hollywood films. I’m afraid the film offers, finally, little more than a “you go girl” message transposed from the black ghetto to the white trash Ozarks. Just watch her overcome those plot obstacles.
All this is, I think, more than a quibble. Nevertheless, even though Ree seems a bit too good to be true, it’s hard not to become involved in her story, to empathize with her, to root her on. After all, that’s how the deck is stacked: she’s the quintessential underdog figure gallantly struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds. You’d have to be heartless not to care about her – which applies equally to the characters in the film itself, as we will see.
Now about those plot obstacles. The story revolves around Ree’s search for her daddy, Jessup, who has gone missing after using their home as collateral to get out of jail (apparently hillbillies now cook meth rather than run moonshine). Her quest to find Jessup immediately runs into serious resistance, first from fearsome Uncle Teardrop, who puts his hands around her throat and warns her to stop searching, then from Merab, the frightening wife of the local boss of meth operations, Thump Milton, advertised as the baddest mofo in the land. Merab apparently does Thump’s dirty work because it is she (along with her equally fierce sisters) who beats Ree to an inch of her life and warns her to stop snooping around. And Merab has good reason to stop Ree: turns out that daddy ratted out the other meth dealers – a major no-no in white trash country – and paid for it with his life. Proof of his murder could well bring the law down upon the Miltons. This is bad news for Ree because if Jessup doesn’t show up in court the family will lose their shack.
Around this point the film’s contrived humanism comes to the fore. Granik, it turns out, wants to have it both ways: to rub our noses in hillbilly despair and to lift our spirits with comforting notions about human goodness. For most of the film Ree stands in stark contrast to the rest of the community. She seems to have sprung from a different world entirely. She stands above the rest, both physically (she’s the only attractive character in the film) and morally, functioning not as a plausibly drawn character in her own right but as the embodiment of an abstract idea: that of the human capacity for goodness. Ree exhibits many of the traits we typically admire in people: integrity, kindness, courage, perseverance, unselfishness – traits scarcely glimpsed in the other characters. She has not been “contaminated” by her rotten environment the way virtually everyone else has been; she is a symbol of purity living among the dregs, the one “untainted” soul among all the trash and scum who seemingly lost their humanity long ago.
But Ree, glorious Ree, seems to reawaken something “good” in others. Her basic decency pierces the callous exteriors of even the most hostile characters and reaches their underlying humanity – the humanity which has eroded away after years of struggle and hardship, violence and drug abuse. Soon they too exhibit some of those admirable traits: kindness, generosity, selflessness. This is a major theme of the picture, which can be discerned from a pattern of altruistic behavior shown toward Ree: one neighbor gives her food and clothing; another one loans her a truck; a complete stranger, after hearing Ree’s tale of woe, directs her to the Miltons, even though doing so could get her in big trouble (she makes sure to tell Ree not to say who sent her); Teardrop risks his life to help and protect her; the bail bondsman gives her some unclaimed cash out of the goodness of his heart (instead of keeping it for himself). Ree becomes the moral center of the Ozarkian universe, around whom the other characters eventually revolve – if only until she gets her house back. By the end, Ree has become the recipient of some truly astonishing acts of altruism, climaxing with a highly improbable errand of mercy carried out by the Milton clan. Yes, just when things look bleakest, hillbilly humanity asserts itself.
In Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Teardrop is described thus: “Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of his eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’d three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it.” [In the book, one side of Teardrop’s face has been badly disfigured in a meth lab explosion].
Of course, the teardrop tattoos do not tell you everything about the man. As the book progresses, Teardrop reveals his sense of loyalty by helping Ree, his kin, in her time of need. And his tattoos (and his nickname) take on a deeper significance than merely signifying that he’s killed people: they also indicate that, because he’s too tough, too guarded to cry real tears, he must express his profound sadness with ink instead, that beneath the vicious exterior resides a tortured, sensitive soul: raging on the outside but crying on the inside. There’s a moving moment in the book when Ree hugs him for the last time and weeps for her uncle, releasing the tears that Teardrop himself cannot shed. Beneath the hard-boiled surface, then, there’s a certain sentimentality built into the Teardrop character, which is notably more pronounced in the film. Granik not only trims down some of Teardrop’s more unsavory characteristics, particularly his constant snorting of crank, she also adds sentimental bits of business not found in the novel to further soften Teardrop’s character, such as his bringing chicks to Ree’s young sibs or his strumming a song on Jessup’s old banjo.
Consider what Granik says about Teardrop at the 17:45 minute mark of this audio clip:
“There may be these characteristics that you see in him that you’ve always admired or that you know are good and yet it’s mired or covered-up by some choices or vulnerabilities that he has”.
For Granik, Teardrop’s “goodness”, his “humanity” has been “covered-up”. It just needs someone to come along and “uncover” it. That someone is Ree. She “breaks through” Teardrop’s “vulnerabilities” and “brings out” his capacity for goodness. Ree reawakens his long dormant compassion, and the better white trash angel of his nature rises to the surface. He reclaims his lost humanity and becomes loyal protector of Ree, risking his own life and acquiring redemption in the process. That he would come to her aid is understandable, I suppose; she’s kin, after all. But as the film progresses Teardrop continues to undergo a discernible softening; before long the film seems on the brink of becoming a backwoods tearjerker. By the end, Teardrop’s latent tears have nearly been brought to the surface. Granik, however, is too restrained, too “tasteful” a filmmaker to resort to anything as melodramatic as unleashing Teardrop’s pent-up waterworks. So, he strums the banjo instead. (John Hawkes himself reportedly balked at the notion of Teardrop playing the banjo, saying, “a guy like that shouldn’t have any artistic outlets at all”).
Thankfully, Granik didn’t soften his character as much as she originally wanted to. At the 2 minute mark of this clip she discusses an alternate ending which would have amounted to a directorial intervention on Teardrop’s behalf, rescuing him from his tragic destiny:
Happily (or, unhappily, as the case may be), harder heads prevailed (apparently Hawkes’), and Teardrop’s sad end is retained. Despite his softer side, in both novel and film Teardrop ultimately emerges as essentially a tragic figure, his fate sealed, finally, by his rigid adherence to the immutable harshness of the Ozark moral code, which dictates that he must avenge his brother’s death. If Ree shines bright as a beacon of hope for the future, Teardrop’s tiny flickering flame is snuffed out for good by his inability or unwillingness to change, doomed by the dark, deathly ways of the past. I hope John Hawkes is remembered at Oscar time, because he does wonders within the limitations of his slightly underwritten role, bringing a quiet poignancy to the hardened Teardrop, even if the character’s behavior swings – from violent psycho to banjo-strumming softie – don’t always ring quite true.
Some have referred to Winter’s Bone as “country noir.” But good noir, real noir, retains its bleak worldview all the way to the bitter end. It doesn’t go soft. It doesn’t pull back and offer the audience cozy, reassuring messages about the “indomitability of the human spirit” or the “capacity for human goodness” like Winter’s Bone does. And the protagonists of real noir would never be used as symbols of purity the way Ree is.
Nowhere is this tendency to go soft more noticeable than in the climactic actions of the Milton clan. For the majority of the film they operate according to the dictates of their own self-interest, demonstrating a willingness to go to great lengths to prevent Ree from finding Jessup and bringing his murder to light. Their behavior conforms to what we would expect from such a clan under the circumstances, right up until their pummeling of the defenseless girl. But then Thump and the gang come face to battered face with Ree.
In this clip from a Q&A session with Granik, an audience member asks her how she reconciles the film’s violence and unpleasantness with its sentimentality and romanticism. Here’s what Granik says about Merab: “…she does the right thing ultimately. She does have a conscience. She’s able to be reflexive about her behavior. That final plea gets under her skin. She uses violence and threatening behavior, and in the end – goodness – she had the humanity to be able to see someone in their naked plea and do something about it.”
After Merab and her sisters beat Ree to a pulp (off screen, of course, because Granik is too “tasteful” a filmmaker to actually show such things) Thump arrives and allows Ree the opportunity to explain herself; she delivers an impassioned plea on her family’s behalf – explaining that she isn’t seeking revenge or to find out what happened to Jessup, that she just wants to save her family’s house – and the Miltons relent. They admire her pluck, respect her promised adherence to the Ozark code of silence, and empathize with her plight. You can actually see the change of heart register on Merab’s face. Just as Ree reawakens Teardrop’s long dormant humanity, so she reawakens the Miltons’. They take pity on her and “do the right thing” by taking her to her “daddy’s bones”.
Some still might argue that the Miltons are motivated purely by self-interest, that helping Ree was the best way to put an end to all “the talk” – as if neighborhood gossip posed a more serious threat to the Miltons than the risks incurred by bringing Jessup’s murder to light. The Miltons simply have far more to lose than to gain by helping her. Allowing Ree to drop her father’s decaying hands off at the sheriff’s office offers incontrovertible proof that a murder has taken place, which will only increase the likelihood of what the Miltons have been trying to avoid the entire film: bringing the law down upon them. Thump might just as well have stamped “I did it” on his forehead. After all, the fact that Jessup snitched on Thump kind of narrows down the likely suspects, don’t you think?
Moreover, helping Ree will make it more likely that the one local they have reason to fear, Teardrop, will be provoked to seek revenge against them, because now Teardrop knows without a shadow of a doubt that his brother Jessup was murdered, and by whom. If the body is never discovered the possibility always remains open that Jessup simply skipped bail and fled the area, and Teardrop would not be duty bound to avenge his brother’s murder. Thump gives Teardrop good reason to take action: two decaying hands on a platter.
From the standpoint of pure self-interest, helping Ree is downright foolish (and actually taking her to where the body is buried is just idiotic; if they have to help her at all, why not just deliver her the hands?). The logical conclusion to this is that the Miltons acted more out of compassion than self-interest – which is precisely what Granik means when she says that Merab does the right thing. People do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because it’s in their self-interest. Which is why, for me, the denouement travels about as far into the realm of “fetchedness” as a story can go. Granik asks us to believe that the Miltons do what’s morally right by Ree, despite the grave risks involved. Quoting from Sweet Smell of Success: that’s fish four days old and I won’t buy it: the Miltons’ concluding errand of mercy is merely symptomatic of Granik’s attempts to wrest false optimism out of the despairing bleakness. That the Miltons would risk arrest and the wrath of Teardrop just to help a girl they barely know simply stretches credulity to the snapping point. No, I’m afraid the clan’s sudden about face has more to do with contrived plot mechanics and Granik’s need to overlay soothing notions about the capacity for human goodness on the bleak material than it does with plausible character motivation.
Granik was wise to keep off screen the scene in which Thump instructs Merab to take Ree to Jessup’s body, because it would have gone something like this:
Thump: Go git the chainsaw.
Merab: What fer?
Thump: I’m a-want’n you and yer sisters to take that thar girl to Jessup’s body and saw his haynds off.
Merab: What fer?
Thump: Dogonnit, woman, I’m agonna whup ya like a rented mule if’n you dernt git a-doin’ like I tell ya to git a-doin’.
Merab: But Thump, what’m I a-suppose to do with them thar haynds?
Thump: y’all aggona have that thar girl drop ‘em off at that a po-lice station.
Merab: What fe…
[Thump punches Merab in the face]
Thump: Dagnabbit, woman, quit askin’ what fer.
Merab: But Thump, won’t a-bringin’ them thar haynds to that thar po-lice station bring the law a-snoopin’ round these har parts. That could mean a heap ‘o trouble.
Thump [sighs]: Sho ‘nuff might, woman. But that thar girl done melted old Thump’s heart. Shoulda never had y’all beat on her like’n I done. I reckon it were just wrong. I’m all tore up inside over what we a done to that purdy lil child. And by Gawd, we are a go’n to do the right thang by that thar girl, even if’n it means fryin’ in one of them thar lectric chars.
[A teardrop forms in Thump’s eyes and falls on his cheek, matching the little teardrop tattoo adorning Teardrop’s cheek]
Merab [hugging Thump]: Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit. Thump Milton,
you do have a heart.
Thump: ‘course, I do, woman. Looky hyeer, I got me a heart as big as all outdoors. I caint stop a-thinkin’ ‘bout that thar child fend’n fer herself out yonder. An’r kinfolk, too. Why, them young’ns ain’t even knee high to a duck.
[Thump is now weeping inconsolably]
Thump: That thar theory of the eee-vo-lution says that altruism rarely extends beyond the clan. But we agonna show them thar Yankee eggheads that the Milton Clan ain’t a-like the t’others. We agonna dee-mon-strate that Miltonian altruism extends to all humanity.
Merab: Well, paint me purple and call me Barney! Thump Milton, I never knew you were a so durn smart. Where did you come by so much larnin’? Usin’ all them big words and all.
Thump: I read, woman. I be aimin’ to edgy-cate myself. You should try it sometime ‘stead a sittin’ ‘round gossipin’ with them thar sisters of yers. Why, you’re so dumb if they put your brain on the head of a pin it would roll around like a BB on a six-lane highway.
Merab: That were uncalled fer. I got me feelings, too.
Thump: I do ‘pologize, woman. Sure as the vine twines ’round the stump, you are my darlin’ sugar lump.
Merab [blushing]: Ahhh, Thump. But wait. You said that the altryism rarely extends beyond the clan.
Thump: Yeah, what of it, woman?
Merab: Well, I reckon with all the inbreedin’ goin’ on in these har parts we all one big clan. Scientifically speaking, like.
Thump: Lord a’mercy! How could you be relations with that thar girl? Why, she’s as purty as a spotted horse in a daisy pasture, and you’re so ugly they’d have to tie a pork chop ‘round your neck to get the dawg to play with you. Now, look what you gone and done. I plum lost my train a thought. What were I a-sayin’?
Merab: Somethin’ ‘bout the eee-vo-lution and the altryism and the clan and the eggheads.
Thump: Right. You skedaddle now and fetch yer sisters and take that sweet child to her daddy’s bones sos’n she can save her family shack. It be the right thang to do, and by Gawd I’m a-fixin’ to do it.
Merab: I declare that girl done brung out the sweet side of you. Thumper, it be a gen-u-ine miracle.
Thumper: Call me Thumper agin. Jist one more time, woman. Go on now, give me a reason…
Posted on September 1st, 2010 by Mat Viola
Filed under: Reviews