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Winter’s Bone (2010) is only the second feature from Debra Granik. To produce a film of this quality early in her career is impressive, though not unique. (Jacques Audiard comes to mind, if you only want a contemporary example.) At the surface, the film feels, for the most part, relentlessly real: without flinching Granik presents the brutal life of an impoverished family based in the Ozarks. The more I think about the picture, though, the more this notion of unflinching realism feels challenged. In arguably its weakest moment, Winter’s Bone brushes with almost-allegory: the army recruitment officer stands more like the physical representation of the audience’s concerns and Ree’s (Jennifer Lawrence) uncertainty than a genuine character, guiding her away from the false escape of the army and back to her problems at home. More often than not, though, the realism is undercut in a satisfying way.

The jostling of different story-telling modes is perhaps no more apparent than in the emotional climax of the film, the moment gracing the promotional poster above. Ree has been taken, blindfolded, to the location of her father’s body. This scene is the end of her quest. Her search for her father has, so far, been reminiscent of one of Pynchon’s sprawling novels in which a serpentine route through various settings only manages to circle around the desired end; we’re wondering, up to this point, if Ree’s father, like “V.” in V. (1963), is impossible to find. Uncertainty, surrounding V. right to the end of the novel, is brought revoltingly to a close in the picture when Ree must grab and hold her father’s dead hands. Rooted in sensuous experience, it’s an overwhelmingly real moment for Ree: she cannot escape the new found physical proximity of her long-absent father. The emotion of this sensation – felt by both Ree and the audience – almost falls into comic farce when Merab (Dale Dickey) has to chainsaw the hands from the corpse. Is it unflinchingly real or simply laughable that the moment is played out not once, which may have sufficed, but twice?

What I mean is, while there are obviously two hands that need to be separated separately, Granik could have taken a filmic liberty and merged the two resulting noises into one, shifting the focus from the action itself onto Ree’s reaction. It should be noted that we barely see the hands at all; the bodily separation is almost entirely felt through what we hear. As it is though, we’re given two separate (predominantly off screen but audible) moments of brutality that force us to concentrate on the dead man’s hands. Ree drops one of them and, again, while this action feels, on one level, staggeringly realistic, Merab’s reaction to the slip puts a comic pressure on the heightened emotion of the scene: it could all quite easily collapse into ridiculousness.

But, for some reason, it doesn’t. Instead, it achieves a balance that works and it feels reductive to praise the realism of Winter’s Bone without acknowledging the other narrative modes (for example parody and allegory) and literary models (a search, mythological echoes) that compete in the picture.