Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poverty in the Ozarks and the Movie Winters Bone

I have been asked by several people if the movie Winter's Bone is a true depiction of what its like in the Ozarks but since I had never seen it I couldnt offer comment. Well we watched it the other night and it was a very dark movie with an almost film noir quality about it and overall I would recommend you see it if you havent.

Does it truly depict life in the Ozarks? Yes and No. We found the look of the locations pretty accurate (it was filmed not too far from here) as far as the run down houses and trailers, junked vehicles in the yard etc and the look of the actors was fairly representative of this area but I think the film went astray in trying to depict the poverty and meth problem here. If you knew nothing of the area it would seem from the film that most of the people here are involved with meth, are dirt poor, and unhappy violent people which is just not the reality.

We have come to find the Ozarks a place of great beauty with generally reserved people who choose to keep to the old ways and who are suspicious of outsiders, the government, and in particular law enforcement in general. This is a very religious area that has somehow kept its cultural identity mostly intact despite the fact that most everyone now has cable TV, phones, and road access to the outside. Poverty as defined by the amount of money or expensive things people have is high but particularly in our area you wouldnt have too many people define themselvs as poor nor do they partake of government handouts as much in this area.

Missouri is part of the poverty belt and the southern Ozarks is among the poorest areas in the state (our county is 4th poorest in Missouri) but our county has a much lower percentage of the population eligible for welfare or foodstamps using them than counties with a higher urban population. Around here, folks generally reject any government interferrance or oversight (including handouts) for the freedom they hold so close. If you need food, grow a garden, hunt and fish. If you need money, work to get what you need then sit back and enjoy it awhile. If this sounds like I am being trite, I'm not. Most folks in the rural Ozarks just plan on working their whole lives and lots of people seem to be content to have a few acres to raise their kids and a few animals and there is a significant underground barter or under the table economy that isnt reflected in most studies of the area.

But....Meth, or Hillbilly Heroin, or Crank as its variously called has impacted this area in a big way because it is one way to make money in an otherwise extremely depressed economic situation. Outside of Missouri Meth is often called 417 after our area code and Missouri is known as the meth capital of the country. Personally I think thats because Missouri is way more aggressive in going after Meth so they bust more meth labs but once you go back into some of the more remote areas you understand why the problem is hard to combat. As depicted in the movie, family ties are big, and regional loyalties come first. It doesnt matter whats legal or right, you just have to know that some things are the way they are and thats that. What people do on their own property is their business around here and I guess I feel like that too. We dont violate the law but we dont want or need anyone checking on us either if that makes sense and if we see something elsewhere..its not our business. But having said that, at least in our neck of the woods, if any meth activity happens its kept well underground and the locals drive out or straighten out anyone who gets out of line.

The movie did err though in my opinion in depicting the people as so unhappy and violent. This is farming and ranch country and there isnt a lot of shy people around but the people who try to live Christian productive lives far out number any bad element and in fact we have to drive 22 miles just to buy a beer. Most folks regardless of their lot in life are at least outwardly happy and friendly and the various social strata mix easily without signs of animosity or strain. Its also a fact that more baby boomers are retiring here because of its remoteness, low prices, and quality of life....nothing stays the same even the Ozarks.

So it was a good movie but just remember it was just a movie with overly dramatic situations compressed into 100 minutes. Yes there are a lot of run down places around here....but more than likely they are paid off or built by the owner, yes we all have a hound dog...keeps out intruders and coyotes, yes most of us have a few vehicles that arent running or old tractors in the yard....we call them future projects, and yes most of us burn wood for our primary heating source...and we laugh at you who are sweating what OPEC will do next.

So rent the movie and enjoy it as a movie...just dont blanket it with some sort of documentary status.


  1. Dear Salmonslayer,

    Let me introduce myself. I am Frederik Voute from the Netherlands. I came across your website, you guessed it, after searching for more information on the setting of Winter's Bone. I am a great movie lover, and devour just about anything on American life and culture I can get my hands on. Winter's Bone crossed my path because I noticed Jennifer Lawrence is not only a great actress, but she chooses the more interesting stories, instead of the regular Hollywood formula-films.
    I just wanted to say, thank you very much for this movie-review, and I suppose a review of the Ozarks. Coming from a small but rich country, for quite a while now I've been fascinated with life outside of the concrete jungle of our cities, and the familiarity of the culture I come from.
    Ever since I visited Texas a long time ago, I've found that the 'great outdoors' of the United States has a quality of life to it that is unique and easy to appreciate. Since, I've found some close friends in Kentucky (I am a beginning scholar in the field of nuclear energy and weapons and meet people from everywhere) and visiting KY confronted me with the non-urban United States, and how people very much know how to fend for themselves and retained their local culture and music. It was the abject poverty in the movie that still shocked me though, triggering my research. Your take on it enriches that picture though. Of course you are right; the movie focuses on a 'meth-family' and that's not representative, but the more interesting thing I learned from you is that poverty, in the sense of keeping the government out -even- if its to your benefit, that fills me with a sense of romance but also worry. It seems to be the embodiment of American independence, the true frontier mentality, but at the same time for instance a blight for the prospects of kids growing up there. I don't know; it's not my place to judge and so I won't. I suppose, in order to have this kind of free life, there will be a turn-side. Whatever the negatives though, it does work inspiring, to me. Thanks for writing. If you'd like to respond, my email is fvoute at gmail.
    Best wishes,

    1. Wonderful to hear about you Frederik getting the very same experience about the movie and this blog, and how you happened to pass here exactly the same route as I did. I myself am from Finland and I've been doing some research on my ancestors, who migrated to the United States mostly from 1890s til the end of WW2. They mostly migrated to the Great Lakes like the northern Minnesota, but some also ended up in the Ozarks and it's fantastic to hear local stories like this about their values, living conditions and means of living. They seem to resonate the classical northern European ideals of honesty, modesty and hard work.

    2. I too am fascinated about the original rural culture in the old American borderlands, it's like finding your own old country in a completely different location and it's sad how it's nowadays portrayed only in derogatory light.

      I'm studying IT and telecommunications in Helsinki and hope to someday go see my still living distant family in that region. Have fun and success in your studies on the subject!

      Pauli Peltola

  2. I grew up near Lanagan Mo. I grew up poor but not what i consider poverty. Dad worked full time mom stayed at home. There was 4 kids in the family. We were told to stay away from the Lanagan kids because they were white trash. Wonder what there families said about ours.
    Meth is prevalent but really only touches n maybe 10% of families, poverty touches maybe 20%. Its not as bad as they say.
    Eventually myself and my siblings moved to large cities across the globe and all have very good jobs and families so yes you can escape it just takes ambition.