Earlier this week, I saw Winter’s Bone, a chilling film that chronicles a teenage girl’s search for her missing father in the bucolic, yet hostile world of the Missouri Ozarks. Like many members of this rural mountain community, Jessup Dolly discovered the easy-cash occupation of “cooking crank”—and is now in trouble with the law. Unless 17-year-old Ree Dolly can find her father before his upcoming court date, she’ll lose their house, which Jessup put up for bond when he was arrested. To protect her home—her only means of caring for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings—Ree must pay unwanted visits to her rough, meth-dealing “kin” who warn her not to snoop around.
While the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, is ultimately about perseverance in the face of incredible odds, it is difficult to separate the narrative from the meth-ravaged landscape in which it unfolds. Abandoned, ramshackle buildings, the toxic remains of exploded meth labs, and the hollowed-out faces of Ree’s addicted relatives—these are just of a few of the many images that shed light on the destruction the drug continues to cause in this forgotten part of the country.
Although most national surveys suggest that meth use has dropped significantly since 2005—when federal law restricted purchases of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine (meth’s active ingredients)—the movie reminds us that the problem has not gone away. In the words of Richard Rawson, Ph.D., a pioneer in methamphetamine treatment research, “The cocaine epidemic decreased dramatically in the 90s, but in the inner cities of America, cocaine/crack is still a massive public health problem. Similarly, the meth problem may not be bringing in a new bunch of 16-year-olds, but in Southern California and much of the Midwest, meth will remain a substantial problem for the foreseeable future.” Dr. Rawson explains that meth still decimates communities like the one Winter’s Bone depicts, yet we don’t hear about the issue nearly as often as we should. The reason has to do with where the drug is most prevalent—typically working class and rural areas that can easily fall under the radar. “It is easier for the national media and federal policy makers to recognize a problem when it’s on their doorstep than when it is primarily somewhere far away in rural America,” he says.
The tragic result is that many people in these desolate areas need help, but treatment options are scarce. Without treatment, these individuals will continue to ensure a steady supply of meth, which, according to Rawson, costs our country an estimated $25 billion each year in law enforcement, environmental, healthcare and other expenses.
Although filmmaker Debra Granik shot Winter’s Bone entirely on location, cast locals in supporting roles, and spent time observing residents go about their daily lives, some natives of the Ozarks have complained that the movie plays into stereotypes of impoverished “hill people” as mean, violent, uneducated, and strung out. (Notably, the breakout film Precious received similar criticism for perpetuating the 1980s myth of inner city “crack mothers.”) However, I think we can be grateful to Granik for spotlighting a problem that is very real for the communities where meth continues to wreak havoc. This is reason enough to see Winter’s Bone. You may find yourself white-knuckled on the edge of your seat (as I was) and you may have trouble falling asleep afterward (as I did), but hopefully, you’ll leave with this: When it comes to wiping out the meth problem, now is not the time to say, “Mission accomplished.”
Blog Editor, Phoenix House