I’m not the first person to make this observation, but it bears repeating — Winter’s Bone does for the Ozarks what The Wire did for Baltimore: illustrate a deep-seated web of corruption and moral ambivalence so pervasive that the usual notions of right, wrong, and legal are subordinated to the oldest law in the universe — survival. Cowriter/director Debra Granik doesn’t waste time decrying how broken the law enforcement system is; she doesn’t really even waste her breath on condemning the criminals and villains of this backwoods jungle. Instead, the film is a passive feat of empathy extended toward a single individual who has no chance of escaping this hellish muck.
Jennifer Lawrence gives a remarkably natural performance as a teenager being forced to deal with problems that would traumatize any adult. Ree Dolly is the kind of character that, if she were about fifteen or twenty years older, would be the fulcrum of an Oscar campaign on behalf of a fortysomething star who is looking for some street cred in a de-glamorized role. Lawrence is too young to have developed a persona that requires de-glamorization, and earned an Oscar nomination for it anyway. (She lost to a thirtysomething actress who masturbated, dreamed about self-mutilation, had sex with Mila Kunis, and turned into a CGI swan.) The most remarkable part of the performance is the way that Lawrence portrays a character who possesses a great deal of innate intelligence and mettle, but conveys with a faraway gaze just how little opportunity that her intelligence and mettle have had to be properly cultivated. How wonderfully ironic for a young actress to demonstrate her potential by playing a character who is defined by the potential that she has been forced to thrown away.
Swaddled in grays, blues, and flannel, Ree and the rest of the denizens of this spiritually emaciated community sort of stalk through life in boots seemingly made of iron ore. Most of these people are not self-starters; they tend to fall in with the undertow of their immediate environs, and Ree is no exception. Her dad is a criminal; he just got out of jail, and apparently skipped town to avoid a court date. What’s worse, he put his home up for collateral, and if he doesn’t show, his family will be homeless. His wife’s mind broke under the strain of her husband’s activities, and Ree is now responsible for her younger two siblings as well as her mother. Though she takes an active role in trying to hunt down her dad by chatting up his business associates (read: bluegrass drug cartel), she is powerless to find him on her own. As smart as she is, she’s not going to get by on her wits; her tenacity is the only thing she has going for her. The problem is that all the people trying to dissuade her from pursuing her search are all members of her own clan.
Artists as far back as Orestes have grappled with the ethical questions of how one should deal with family members who are, to put it mildly, doing things that are bad for other family members. In most families, this is not a life or death question. In Winter’s Bone, though, Ree is navigating a treacherous minefield where blood relations are widespread and almost a form of currency bonding disparate individuals together despite their differences. The whole idea that being biologically related to someone somehow obligates some form of love or loyalty is ancient and powerful. Royal families used to use it as a pretext for keeping the peace, though the efficacy of this strategy was always highly suspect. Ree happens to be related by blood to most of the people she meets in the course of her investigation, but that doesn’t seem to mean much to them. The way things work ‘round those parts, being blood kin doesn’t translate into any kind of equality or mutual reciprocity; it means that anyone related to the man with the most money and the meanest disposition had better do what they’re told. Ree knows enough to know how dangerous it is to flout that, but her notion of being blood kin is a little more romantic: she feels responsible for her siblings and her mother, simply because they’re her siblings and mom, and if she doesn’t take care of them, no one will.
Ree’s dilemma in the film isn’t really whether she’ll find her dad or not. Her dilemma is if she will choose to remain enslaved to the hypocritical network of obligations enforced by her inbred community, all for the sake of her immediate family, or if she’ll strike out on her own and leave them behind, as she clearly wants to do. Early in the film, she takes her young’uns to school and peers in longingly through the windows of all the classes she could and should be attending, even if those classes are designed to teach young teen mothers how to care for babies or how to march in formation in the army. That’s why Ree’s emotional climax isn’t the gut-churning scene where she’s forced to hold her dead father’s hands while they’re hacked off by a chainsaw. By that point, we already knew he was dead; it’s emotionally devastating, but it’s not actually shocking.
The scene that’s a metaphorical slap to Ree’s face (as opposed to an earlier scene where she’s physically punched in the face for being too nosy) is when she goes to see the Army recruiter at the high school to inquire about enlistment. For her, joining the U.S. Army had always been her backup plan; she’d be able to escape her dead-end town, she’d have a job that would put money in the bank and food on the table for her family, and she would probably form more stable relationships with people her age than she ever previously had. Then the recruiter gently, sympathetically destroys her hopes by informing her that she is, first and foremost, legally ineligible, and secondly, that perhaps joining the army would be a great thing for her, but a terrible thing for her family. Given that the army is usually represented as preying upon those living under the poverty line, the scene was impressively even-handed for showing a representative who apparently had the best interests of the recruit and her family in mind by rejecting her. But it also demonstrated just how few options the system offers to people in as impossible position as she is. The sergeant can’t help it that he’s putting the mortar on the final brick in her mausoleum. But that’s exactly what happens, and I think the look on Lawrence’s face as she listens to his spiel is the very definition of “crestfallen.”
After that point, everything unfolds with surprising rapidity. The final tragedy of her father having been put in an unmarked grave — in a swamp pond, no less; no dirt to shelter his decomposing body — hits with a dull thud. The final nail in the emotional coffin of the story is the arc of Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. Her fellow Oscar nominee, John Hawkes, is an old pro who’s been around for a long time without receiving a lot of official accolades. In recent years, he’s gotten props for his roles in Deadwood and Me and You and Everyone We Know, and even though he’s a supporting character in Winter’s Bone, this feels like a showcase for a veteran character actor who’s long past due for major roles. Like Barry Pepper in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, he seems to be invoking the ghost of the not-dead-yet Harry Dean Stanton; dead psychopathic orbs floating beneath his brows, he shambles through the film with a cigarette dangling from his gnarled fingers. Delivering most of his dialogue in a nigh-unintelligible mumble (far more marblemouthed than even Jeff Bridges’ take on Rooster Cogburn), he underplays Teardrop to the point of catatonia, if not for the flashes of balefire he keeps coiled under his hunched shoulders.
Initially, he rebuffs Ree for looking into her father’s disappearance, just like everyone else in her family. But maybe because her dad is his brother, or perhaps simply because he cares about her, or because he respects her tenacity, he takes an active role in her search. He aggravates the situation and forces the hand of the drug dealers to settle the situation peacably, lest his antics draw the law irretrievably into their business. In the film’s final scene, he pays a visit to his nieces and nephew, bringing the young’uns a pair of recently hatched chicks. He tries to play a bit on his dead brother’s old banjo. He tells Ree that he found out who did the deed. Over the time frame of the film, he and Ree had come to an understanding, a kind of mutual respect that, in such a place, might be called affection. A man of violence like Teardrop has only recourse if he knows who killed his brother. Ree knows that. Teardrop seems to regret it. If it were anywhere else, things wouldn’t necessarily have to go that way. But we know as well as Ree and Teardrop that he’s going to wind up in that swamp (or another just like it) or in jail. And he’s not coming back. All in the name of doing right by one’s blood.
Which brings us back to the whole idea of family obligations. The Wire played with the idea of neighborhood communities functioning much like extended crime families, but transplanted to the Ozarks, those connections are made literal by marriage or birth. Ultimately, Ree chooses to remain with her siblings to protect them — a bittersweet decision. Partly because she failed to escape the morass and develop her own individual identity apart from the network of obligations she is now forced to shoulder, and partly because the film seems to indicate that upholding this internecine honor system perpetuates the kind of hope and despair that leads a man like Teardrop to chalk his violent choices up to fatalism. As pragmatic as it may be to stick it out on one’s own stomping ground, that stomping ground is filled with pitfalls and traps. It seems just as likely that Ree will end up like her mother or like Merab, the wife of Thump Milton, the drug kingpin. Merab seems less like a Lady MacBeth than Thump’s personal enforcer; it’s Merab who pulverizes Ree when Ree chases Thump back to his home, and it’s Merab who cuts the hands of Ree’s dad. But it also seems to be Merab who persuaded her husband to spare Ree’s life, and who took the initiative to help Ree by proving that her father is dead — which lets them off the hook for paying off his bounty with their land. Sawing off her father’s hands may be grisly, but it was necessary for survival. Dale Dickey has been around for a long time and like most character actors, she plays variations on a persona. It’s another amazing, subtle performance in a film full of them. As flinty as Merab is, she seems to empathize with Ree. She’s just another smart, tough woman who had few choices and somehow found herself a ruthless forty-year-old woman in the position of holding the life of a teenage girl in her hands. A girl who is her own kin.
Whether the grace shown to Ree in the end is a form of social Darwinism (with selfish designs on the part of Merab and Thump) or genuine altruism born of empathy, the overwhelming tone is one of listless despair. Ree’s fortunes ultimately depend upon the actions of others, even if her persistance precipitated them. Though Granik’s style reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, the film as a whole reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Like Jake Gittes, Ree is a tenacious searcher, but the overwhelming corruption of her home turf makes authentic justice impossible. The next best thing is survival. She can only blindly follow leads, and even when the whole picture becomes clear to her, the simplicity of the truth is of such a black magnitude that stunned acquiescence seems to be the only sensible response.
Desaturated and seemingly shot exclusively on overcast days (though that could just as easily be camera filters put to good use), the camerawork seems mostly unadorned and noncommittal. Only a few scenes tighten the screws with carefully framed compositions (such as the memorable standoff-by-side-mirror in which Hawkes faces off with Garret Dillahunt, another awesome character actor) or perspective manipulation (such as the brief POV shot as Ree comes to after being knocked unconscious). Then there’s Ree’s dream sequence, in which envisions the land being destroyed — presumably by land developers and logging interests — an apocalyptic, yet quietly observed in a different, home movie aspect ratio. Clearly we’re invited to share Ree’s perspective on events, yet most of the film feels a bit detached and reactive… which is a perfect aesthetic match for a film about a protagonist who feels overwhelmed and small in a barren wilderness where the arid winter air and disenfranchised by the frigid disdain of blood kinsmen. The aesthetic design of the film (including a subtle sound design where the crackle of dry grass and twigs underfoot seem to parallel stature of Ree’s status in the community) is functional and efficient, but the craft fits with the study of a community that has fundamentally turned its back on ambition or hope.
For me, it’s this last aspect that seems to be the most spiritually significant. For all the agony Ree suffers as a result of the inbred familial loyalties by which she abides, she sees no better way to exist in this life. She gets by, but it all seems too massive. There’s a clear absence of hope. The grace of love that exists in her own home — which she showers upon her mother, sister, and brother — exists almost nowhere else in the film. The fleeting glimpse of that kind of familial love that develops between Teardrop and Ree is undone by the fatalism that crystalizes around them. The realpolitik of the community is too deep set, and everyone has already been too compromised by it; there’s no room for elevation, escape, or change. The film’s final line, delivered by Ree to her young charges, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” doesn’t have the ring of, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It’s leavened by maternal love by a newly christened den mother, but the pessimism is vintage Polanski. As hard as Ree has struggled so far, her promise is now engraved in the ancient forest where her home is nestled: this is her life. She owns it. Her launch window is closed, and the best she can hope for is that things turn out better for her siblings. With a woman like Ree guiding them, perhaps things will turn out better. But that’s probably what everyone else in the film thought when they were in her position.
Here’s the conundrum posed by this film: is Ree’s devotion to her family a signal of divine grace piercing through the vale, or is it a sign that she has finally internalized the purgatorial muck of this world and decided to live entirely according to its rules? I’m personally undecided. Certainly, for Ree as an individual, there is no further escape. The question is whether or not she can live according to her own, higher code within her own sphere, or if her own domain is now compromised by the pragmatism and blood ties she employed to keep it. The beauty of the film’s ambiguity is that either option comes with its own attendant tragedies, but in a spiritual sense, I think the film is basically about the struggle of giving hope to the hopeless. Stylistically, the film doesn’t have much in common with Bresson, but the final scene’s emphasis on bearing the burden of this life’s responsibilities as best one can seems to be distantly related to the travails of poor old Balthazar or Michel, the hapless pickpocket. There is a difference between being compromised in the flesh and being compromised in the spirit, and for Christians, there is a long history of the idea of suffering ennobling one’s soul. Ree’s crisis moment — the rejection of her enlistment enquiry — is pivotal because she is forced to confront her future. She can face it with resignation or with acceptance. I don’t like to split hairs here, but the connotations between these two emotional responses is vital to the way we view Winter’s Bone’s conceptional of fatalism. One response is spiritual death, and the other is not. If Ree’s acceptance is borne out of unconditional love, then it is spiritually vital.
The world of the film is undoubtedly a world without hope. Ree isn’t there to give hope to her world; she’s there to bring it to ours. Viewed properly, Winter’s Bone isn’t just the sad story of a backwoods girl trapped in a materially and spiritually impoverished existence; it’s the struggle of humanity to find a faith that makes enduring existence worthwhile. Thus, in midwinter’s bleak, barren fields, hope blooms. ☕