Winter's Bone: Ozark Potato Bake

Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
(R, 100 min.)

"Never ask for what you ought to be offered." Ree Dolly

A glimpse into another world, as ancient and untouched as the Ozark Mountains that stand in the distance like grizzled elders. Corrupt and decayed as the broken blood bonds and rusting cars that litter the landscape like modern ruins. True and straight as the young girl who must defy its unyielding code.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the seventeen-year-old daughter of a methamphetamine “cooker,” somehow stands apart from all the decay. She might protest that “I’m a Dolly, bread and buttered,” but she is only in their world and not of it.

Somehow she manages to care for her two young siblings, twelve-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and six-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), schooling them on arithmetic and spelling as they traipse through the woods, while not ignoring the more practical skills, such as how to shoot and gut a squirrel. Not much of anybody else is around to do this, seeing as her mother seems lost in a semi catatonic haze that protects her from the reality of life with Jessup, the absent father and husband who now has done the unthinkable –put up the family house and timberland for his bail and then apparently skipped town.

Ree vows to the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) that she will find him before his hearing. It is on her quest to root out Jessup that we meet the next of kin who are, as Hamlet said, less than kind. Or to put it in the Texas vernacular, they are like a den of rattlers holed up in some dark cave, vaguely related but a bit on the “techy” side.

Ree must work within the code of the hills, almost Greek in its scope. First is the code of silence. These assorted crank cookers and criminals have been called a hillbilly mafia, and that rings true in their aversion to telling anything to the law. But we have none of their smiles or spaghetti, their wine or wide girths. These people are as lean as the saplings in their forest, dry, wizened and with no sense of mirth.

The doorways, albeit made of rotting timbers with flaking paint, are sacrosanct, too. No one enters without an invitation. And sometimes an invitation is hard to come by, especially one to the home of the drug kingpin, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), who has a bigger than life presence reminiscent of Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He also has a sentinel in the form of his wife Merab (Dale Dickey), spare and dry as a leaf, her whispered threats more menacing than any loud oaths by beefed up bodyguards.

And Merab is uneasy with Ree stepping out of her subservient gender role as well. “Ain’t you got no men that can do this?” she queries in what for her almost sounds like a sympathetic tone.

Her final dismissal says it all, though. “Talking just causes witnesses.”

Ree is also initially dismissed by her father’s only brother, Teardrop, played to perfection by onetime Austin band member John Hawkes. He is at times terrifying – even the badboy druggie cousins fear him – and he seems to keep his wife in an almost permanent state of dread. She talks softly to Ree in the afternoon so as not to wake him and later, when he enters the kitchen, he tells her to be quiet. “I’ve said it with words,” he cautions, suggesting the next admonitions will not be verbal.

Yet at times – when he’s not battering a windshield with the axe he keeps in the back of his pickup or threatening the sheriff with the rifle he levels over his shoulder as the lawman approaches his car – Teardrop can be almost tender. He brings two baby chicks to Sonny and Ashley and plucks at Jessup’s old banjo, then apologizes that he never could play it like his baby brother.

And the bluegrass banjo, fiddle, and mandolin music that saturates the film rings as old and true and the hills, especially the tunes sung at a birthday celebration by Ozarks folklorist Marideth Sisco. Many of the tunes can be traced to the British Isles and Germany, one song even dating back to 1590.

And as in those earlier times, when the women had somewhat narrowly defined roles, the women in Winter’s Bone have a sort of autonomy within their own confines. It is actually a group of three sisters not unlike the Grey Sisters or Fates of Greek and Roman mythology, who deal out rough justice to the overstepping Ree, and then alternately offer her an even rougher justice, but one that is necessary for her family’s survival.

But the best thing about this 2010 winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival is that it neither exploits nor caricatures these rural poor as is often done by commercial Hollywood, giving them the same unflinching dignity we have come to expect for our urban poor. Even New York Times critic A. O. Scott called it “almost Greek in its archaic power,” and limited himself to mild Eastern elite sarcasm:

American independent cinema abounds in earnest stories of hard-bitten people living in impoverished corners of the country, their moral and emotional struggles accompanied by acoustic guitars and evocative landscape shots and generally uninflected by humor. 

If you thought Crazy Heart was authentic, go see this masterful portrait that makes that film look commercial. You don’t feel as though you are watching actors in Winter’s Bone, but life itself.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

I’m not going to offer you a recipe for squirrel meat or deer stew, two meals touched upon in Winter’s Bone. I will refer you to an earlier recipe for Texas Venison Chili, from the equally spine-tingling gothic film No Country for Old Men.

But today I'll go for something less like a menu item from the Road Kill Café. How about all those potatoes Ree keeps slicing into her frying pan?

Our recipe for Ozark Potato Bake is a bit more complex than her staple, fried potatoes, but I’m sure Ree would have loved it if she could come across all the ingredients.

Ozark Potato Bake

A favorite family recipe from Dot McEntire of Stella, Mo. 

Ingredients 

  • 3 lbs. red potatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chicken stock (4 bullion cubes)
  • 3/4 cup Milnot canned cream, or half and half cream
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tbs butter, melted
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 2 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 cups Velveeta cheese (small squares)

Directions

Scrub potatoes. Do not peel. Cut into 1/4 -inch slices. Do not rinse sliced potatoes (starch will help thicken mixture). In a 3-quart saucepan, place potatoes, onions, celery, water and bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until partially cooked, stirring occasionally.

Add cream of mushroom soup, Milnot canned cream, garlic, salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.

In an baking dish, spread 1 tablespoon of the melted butter. Layer half of the potatoes with half of the sauce, half of the cheese, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Repeat. Top with remaining cheese and sauce. Sprinkle with parsley. Cover with foil. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 minutes longer or until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. 

Number Of Servings: 6/8

Preparation Time: 1 hour

Recipe Source: Recipes from the Ozark Mountains