Both Debra Granik’s 2010 Academy Award–nominated indie thriller Winter’s Bone and Richard Pearce’s 1984 farm saga Country, the first release from Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures studio, and that year’s New York Film Festival opening night film, focus on families struggling to save their homes from seizure by government agents. Bone’s teenaged Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) acts as single parent to two younger siblings in the wake of her meth-dealing father Jessup’s disappearance and severely mentally ill mother’s slide into oblivion. One afternoon, bailiffs show up in the debris-strewn yard of their small rickety home threatening to foreclose on the place if her father doesn’t present himself at an upcoming court date; seems dear old dad used the house as collateral for his bail. Ree has little idea where Jessup is and the neighbors who might know aren’t kindly disposed towards young girls poking into the area’s bustling meth trade. Barely schooled, but apparently in possession of some true grit, she ventures off into the menacingly lensed Ozark backwoods in search of her father.
By contrast, Country’s midwestern Ivy family seems well-off: Jewell (Jessica Lange) and her husband, Gil (Sam Shepard), work their expansive family farm along with Jewell’s father, Otis (Wilford Brimley), teenaged son Carlisle (Levi L. Knebel) and somewhat younger daughter Marlene (Theresa Graham). The fertile land has been in Jewell’s family for generations, and she and her husband have never dreamed of living any life that doesn’t involve farming. At the film’s open, their idyllic existence is practically an advertisement for Middle America (the film was shot in Iowa). In the wake of an unexpected twister that leaves their tractor damaged, financial troubles come to light. The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which only a half decade prior encouraged farm families to borrow against their land to expand production, has now adjusted its mandate and is forcing debt-ridden farms into foreclosure (a nod to the ideological shift from Carter to Reagan administrations). Facing thousands of dollars in debt, Gil slides into alcoholism and violence, eventually abandoning the family, leaving Jewell to find a way to save the farmstead.
Jewell’s trajectory is quite similar to Ree’s; their milieus may be radically different, but they share the same goal. Both films are structured around quest narratives, and employ this teleology as a mechanism for plumbing regional specificities and eccentricities—Granik and Pearce both use their stories as vehicles for ethnography. Where Country and Winter’s Bone sharply diverge lies in their relative weighting of ethnographic and journey-narrative elements. Read Jeff Reichert’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.