Wow, was I dying to see this movie. I had tried to get the rights, so I obviously totally dug the story, characters, setting, everything. I failed and hadn’t thought about it in a while. Then all of a sudden it rears its Sundance-y little head, and it’s come to a theater near me. So I went. This past weekend. High anticipation, to say the least.

And it had problems. It’s a good little movie and I see how Sundance loved it, what with all the relentless grimness and bleak demeanor and hopelessness of everybody’s lives… but, crap… they did some things that irritated me. Did they irritate you? Or am I wrong?

Stuff happened off screen. Important stuff, like action and decisionmaking. And stuff was given that was not earned. Repeatedly.

Without giving away too much, which I loathe in film reviewers (I think it’s cause they can’t get arrested as screenwriters, so they have to tell somebody else’s story, so they tell the one of the movie they’re reviewing. In real life, no one tells the story of a movie when giving a review. “Hey, have you seen X-Men?” “Yeah. It’s great.” “What’s it about?” “These cool heroes and a gnarly bad guy who used to be their buddy.”)… so, without telling the story… here’s what bugged me about WINTER’S BONE.

The girl has a problem (a great one, btw) and she has to ask people to help her. One by one they turn her down, and then one by one, OFF SCREEN, they decide to go ahead and help her. It happens three times, at least. Correctly, of course, they are in ever escalating order. Least problem first.

I’ll tell you about the first one, which doesn’t ruin too much of the story. She needs wheels. She can’t solve her problem without transport. So she goes to ask her friend, who is very young, just had a baby, and lives with her jerk husband. The friend has to ask the husband to borrow the truck. Which happens off screen (I guess it’s the hero’s POV, and we can’t see any scene she’s not in, but she was in the house when the husband got asked and could have overheard the conversation) and the buddy comes in and says he won’t lend you the truck. Jerk. Then, a day or so later, the friend shows up at the heroine’s house, truck and baby and all. We never really hear how she got the truck. Maybe she left the guy. She should. The film is a hell of a lesson in “Take your birth control pill, honey.”

Anyway, not only did the Pick Up Truck Decision happen off screen, the heroine had nothing to do with it. She does not earn the boon she receives. She asks, is told no, gives up and then later on, through no effort of her own, she is granted the use of the truck (or magic bean or sword or secret information or that cute guy’s email… or whatever… you following me, screenwriters?) She did nothing to make Mr. Jerk Husband change his mind and give her the truck. She did not go in there with a 2×4 and threaten him, nor did she beg her friend to ask him again… she did nothing other than ask, get denied, and then later on, receive.

And this is what happens, at least two more times… with much greater effect on her problem.

“Yeah, but she’s a seventeen year old girl. How can she make those mean Ozark folks do what she wants? It’s not believable.”
“Well, it’s a MOVIE, and a drama, and she does not earn what she gets, and every decision that saves her ass is made off screen.”
“She can’t FORCE those unpleasant people to give her what she needs!”
“I repeat, it’s a MOVIE, not real life. They should have figured out a way for her to help herself out of the hole she’s in, a way that we would believe.”

One man’s opinion. What’s yours?



Filed under Criticism, Screenwriting, Writing Process

23 responses to “WINTER’S BONE

  1. Rebekka Brown

    The scene at the cattle auction should have been cut; serves no purpose, well, maybe it shows that she’s trying to help herself by going to talk to the head honcho of the family. But she never got his attention and it was a waste of her time and didn’t move the story forward; it only confused me.

    Cattle in the Ozarks?!

  2. John Gluck

    After the movie was over I apologized to my Mother (she saw it with me). I thought it was going to be really good. It got 95% on Rottentomatoes. I’ve never seen a movie get that high a rating before so I thought it was going to be good guaranteed, no doubt. My Mother and I couldn’t understand what the actors were mumbling. In the beginning when the main character was walking and walking I thought this was going to be a re-telling of Nosferatu (1979) which I thought was cool but then the walking stopped.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      There was sorta no “there” there. I had high high anticipation, but in the end, it was a tad on the lethargic side, and, as I said, the heroine didn’t do much to help herself. She asked for help and was turned down a lot. In the end, everybody felt either guilty over their behavior, or decided she was family and that she needed help… off screen. Not where you want the decisionmaking process.

  3. Jim Howrey

    I did not find the off screen decision-making troubling, since it WAS from her POV and she was in every scene. Undoubtedly her relentlessness in pursuit of her goal was a contributing factor to the off-screen decision-making you refer to.

    Perhaps it’s my Midwest upbringing and my ear being more attuned to hearing the accents, but I was surprised when my wife said she was having trouble understanding the dialog — but the commnent above about “mumbling” reinforces that some have a problem.

    Re: John Hawkes’ performance, when I saw his first scene, I was thinking that looks like John Hawkes but I wonder who it really is! I’ve never seen him play that kind of character — anyway, he was outstanding.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Yeah, I am pretty nit picky, and I’m a teacher… so I have to stick by my guns. Main thing is, it worked for you!

      • Walter

        You’re right. All the off-screen decision-making was problematic to say the very least.

        Also, as you noted, the grimly grimness of the constant grimnity (I’m *from* Appalachia and I know from people like that – trust me, they do on occasion smile) was unremitting. If you’re anything like me (and my wife), that one note played over and over and over and over, ad nauseum, just eventually causes you to tune out. These people play and smile and joke, even if it’s a sort of gallows humor. Changing the tone from “gloom-despair-agony” to something a little lighter on occasion serves to keep the audience in touch with the character AND reinforces the sadness of their lives when you return to “gloom-despair-agony.”

        Finally, the climax sucked. I mean, really, really sucked.

  4. john

    The protagonists persistence is what provokes the action of others off screen. A stellar metaphor for the way life is (not equivically causal). One would have to not paying attention to the dialogue and subtextual content to miss this. The negative appraisal…(sarcastically) yeah, the reviewers, audiences, sundance, other scrioptwriters and the academy all got it wrong. The crank that wrote the nagative comment got it right. Hey buddy…maybe u should become a self-professed experet in something else. As a dramatist, you dropped the ball on Winter’s Bone.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Yep, I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar, but I still found the movie slow and was disappointed that she has to be saved by other people. I do like the idea, though, that her persistence carries her through.

    • I consider myself a fledgling screenwriter and was highly impressed by Winter’s Bone. The mentioned failures noted here and i can only agree to after viewing, but while i was watching it, those issues totally escaped me. I analyze movies constantly while watching, but this one just captivated me. It would have not, if it had followed the path of every rule in the book. A similar case is “Frozen River”, also, it has more daring and go-out-convince-people character.
      Convincing people or being the direct cause of any situations outcome does NOT make a hero. Winter’s Bone hero is a hero, because she sticks to it and isn’t hadn’t her successes by cheap story devices, but because she had an effect on people still. It takes guts to choose that approach as a screenwriter. It takes talent to make it work.
      Winter’s Bone has them both. And i can only applaud it!

      • yourscreenplaysucks

        An excellent argument, Mr. Weyer. A lot of film-watching depends on one’s mood at the time. When I have some spare hours to spare, I’m going to have to watch WINTER’S BONE again. LOTS of people disagree with me on my view of the movie. You are in very good company!

  5. CK

    Hey, I stumbled upon this article looking for a copy of the Winter’s Bone script online, funnily enough because I kept feeling like I was missing lines and I wanted to double check them, haha. Anywho, have to agree with OP and other comments here, I was shocked by how high a rating this got on RT. Acting was good. Atmosphere was fantastic. But…. plot? Left much to be desired. I honestly think Lawrence played the character well/as she was supposed to, but she deadpanned every line, and not in a good way. This may sound callous, but I had difficulty getting myself to care about her predicament. And then, as you said, every decision is kind of made for her. ***SPOILER ALERT*** The climax is ridiculous, I mean, it would be absolutely horrific to have to cut off your Dad’s hands, but this character was strong throughout and then breaks down??? The woman who had BEAT HER UP not too earlier has to help her out. ***SPOILER OVER*** Just too many things felt to be a bit nonsensical/stretching the truth. I dunno. The drug outline wasn’t fleshed out that well either. I can’t put my finger on it, but something was just off about that film, and a big part of that was the help you mentioned in your post. Maybe it got the %age it did on RT because a lot of critics thought it was better-than-average, if not fantastic, so they gave it good reviews, but cumulatively, it shouldn’t’ve been that high. And I’m fairly shocked it got nominated for best picture, though the Academy DOES eat this kind of shit up. Last thought: On Wikipedia, I read that a NYT reviewer said they thought it was “one of the great feminist works in film,” but how???? She doesn’t do anything by herself! In the end, basically, doesn’t that patriarch structure do everything for her??? I don’t see how this film promotes feminism and while it was better than average, it definitely wasn’t THAT good overall.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      The girl is tough, that’s for sure, and that was refreshing to watch. The scene in the barn, she’s tough, but realistic. She doesn’t suddenly develop super powers and use her Power Vision to erase the magnetic strips in their credit cards so they can’t buy food at the A&P and they starve to death and she wins… In the end of that scene, she gets saved by someone, and for me, once is fine, but not at the finale of the whole story.

  6. Dale

    Wow. Do I ever disagree. I can’t imagine why someone would be bothered by off-camera decision-making. Narrative detail and a completely filled-in plot line is so entirely not the point of a film like this. Dale Dickey brilliantly played the woman who lead the beating of the heroine and then ultimately helped her. What was so wonderful about her performance was that during the time she was refusing to help Ree, you could see in her face her ambivalence about Ree. She was torn from the beginning. Also, in the script, she quickly explains to Ree why they decided to help her. It’s in the movie. What the addition of a scene of her getting with her sisters and changing her mind would have added…I have no idea.

    As far as the dialogue goes–and difficulties understanding the speech–I’d pull my hair out if I were the filmmakers in response to this criticism. What’s WRONG with 99% of movies set in areas like the deep South or Appalachia or the Ozarks is that they feature New York or L.A.-based actors who ALWAYS get the local dialogue wrong. In fact, one of the weakest performances in the movie was a smallish role played by a NY-based actor.

    The genius of the movie is that, somehow–and I don’t even know how–it’s respectful of hill country people. That NEVER happens in film. And this film certainly doesn’t glorify that way of life. On the contrary, it’s unflinching and honest. What an incredible balancing act, completely accomplished by the filmmakers.

    • CK

      I think the bigger problem the person who originally wrote this piece was pointing to was how the girl was helped by people at every point of the story. No one’s saying the acting wasn’t great, but the other parts of the film were frustrating. It’s great that they’re being authentic to how people would actually talk in that region, but the filmmaker’s greater responsibility is to the people who paid money to watch the film. There’s a way to be both authentic AND intelligible.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      The point of the film was to tell a good story. I don’t like stories where the things that the heroine gets are not earned, fought for, or won by the heroine. And it happened too many times for me to ignore.
      I gotta go look and see what I said about dialogue…
      I didn’t talk about the dialogue, so I don’t understand why you’re saying I had difficulties understanding the speech. Hmmm.
      I LOATHE movies with non-southern people doing bad southern dialogue.
      I adored the way they showed the people in the film.
      There was a lot of great stuff in the film, but the “handing her stuff she didn’t earn” part bothered me no end. It’s weak storytelling. You can get away with something like that once in a story, but not repeatedly.

    • Well said Dale. I couldn’t agree more with you. This was a wonderful screenplay and an incredible movie.

  7. Ian brown

    Have you read the book? The screenplay follows it pretty closely. In the book the people that choose to help her decide to do so without it being written in. You don’t need to see everything happen. This isn’t the real housewives or some other shit reality show. There are no confessionals. It’s an adaptation of a great book. Quit your crying. “oh boo hoo, they didn’t do everything I wanted. Wah wah, I wish they would do this or that. Blah blah blah”. There’s a reason those people make movies and you cry about them. Think about it.

    Also, you remember that highschool in the beginning of the film? That’s Forsyth high. My high school. I grew up in the heart of the ozarks and this story is all to real. This is what life for some in the area is really like. You want a cookie cutter story, watch a Michael Bay flick.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Read the book. Several times. Tried to option the motion picture rights, which I have only done a few times in my career, so yeah, I liked the book. Just because a book author did it, doesn’t mean they’re right, however. Look at the ending of Grisham’s book The Client vs. the motion picture. The Hollywood ending is vastly improved.

      The hero saving herself is a stronger way to tell a story than for someone else to save the hero. That doesn’t mean it didn’t work in the book / movie, but it could have been better. Generally, it’s a better idea to have important action happen on screen instead of off.

      The movie got made, everybody got paid. Success! I’m trying to teach people how to improve their own writing by pointing out where someone else could have done it better.

  8. Tashi13

    For me I felt that in having all these other people help Ree out she was finally getting a break which is what I wanted for her from the beginning because she tries so hard and nothing comes of it. She has had to do everything by herself for too long, looking after the kids and her mum, shielding them from the truth about their dad and being left to fend for themselves. The help she received from Teardrop was displaying the family bond and showing that she finally had someone who would look out for her.

    I really loved the film and usually when I read reviews like this afterwards they make me think about the point the reviewer has made and sometimes change my opinion but not this time around. Thinking back, for me I still have absolutely no problem with the film, it is still as enjoyable as it first was. Nothing about the story felt wrong to me.

  9. Tashi13

    To quote Ree in fact “Never ask for what ought to be offered”

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Very cool thoughts. If I had time, I’d like to go back and see that movie again. I get about 100% push back on what I felt about it… could that possibly mean I made a mistake?

  10. All your points are well taken and argued. Whether one agrees with you depends on various factors including opinion, personal tastes and above all the “school” of movie making and storytelling that they have learned and subscribe to. What cannot be denied is your intelligent, thoughtful and calm mannered responses to others’ disagreement with you that are sometimes unintelligent, not thought out and mean spirited.

    You may be partly wrong, or not at all, but I remember seeing the movie, feeling unsettled and unsatisfied. I can’t remember why as I saw it 2 years ago and barely remember the story. However, I am sitting down to read the script now and then write a synopsis and comments/coverage of it, as if I were in development and it was an un-produced work. Then tomorrow I am screening the movie again. If I have time I will come back and comment with a fresh point of view and having thoroughly dissected the story.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts after digging into the story and re-watching the movie. Let me know what you find out!

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