Debra Grenik’s “Winter’s Bone” is a film where Grenik certainly employs a show and don’t tell method of filmmaking. The story is about Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year old girl on the hunt for her father wanted by the law. Should she fail to find him, her family will be evicted from their home which their father put up as collateral. “Winter’s Bone” takes place in the rough Ozarks of Central United States and part of what makes this film quite good is Grenik’s use of mis-en-scene to show this facet of America. It’s a story about poverty, and the attempts to make a living on what little you have, yet no one ever says they’re poor or that they need help. Instead, characters live in shabby homes, yards are covered in garbage, and neighbors rely on one another for support to make ends meet, and so on.
One question that will arise in films which portray lower-class people: how does the director go about doing so? There is a danger in the director’s power of creating a narrative which has the potential to glorify poverty or to use it as an aesthetic that would undermine the seriousness of being poor. “Winter’s Bone” is not such a film. Grenik’s attention to detail shows an understanding for the culture displayed on-screen. Through their behavior and backgrounds, her characters are organic, and the world of “Winter’s Bone” feels lived-in.
Take for example how Grenik combines the elements of rumors, power structure in a family, and the lack of proper law enforcement. Ree goes out to find a man named Milton, a distant relative of hers who everyone fears. The audience doesn’t exactly know why but this ignorance of why Milton should be avoided only adds to their own fear. Grenik compounds that fear by having Milton be impossible to reach. Ree finds herself constantly impeded by Milton’s wife and other goons who threaten to beat her and warn her to end the search for her father. Consequently, just as rumors play a powerful role in the film’s narrative, rumors also have a profound effect on how the audience perceives characters, especially Milton. Without Milton appearing onscreen—although he shows up later—the audience has a pretty good idea of this terrifying man simply through the words and actions of other characters.
That power which Milton wields proves to be more effective than the power held by the law, represented in the film by Sherriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt). People react more frightfully towards Milton and respect him more than they do the Sherriff and so part of the culture which Grenik goes about showing is the extremely strong bond between family; blood is certainly thicker than water but therein lies a certain problem: when the family is corrupt, and the law isn’t obeyed, what happens to folks like Ree who is attempting to raise her two younger siblings outside of this system? Everyone seems to suffer.