An icy chill runs through Debra Granik’s raw, riveting Winter’s Bone, released in 2010. The film offers a tough, unflinching look at an impoverished Missouri community steeped in an insidious, feral, gender-segregated culture of illegal drug trade. Inflexible notions of obligation, honor, and shame, rigid obedience, and barely sublimated violence rule these rural hills and hollows. Granik creates an atmosphere of suspicion, foreboding, and everyday misery, turning Winter’s Bone into a stark, forceful, breathless thriller. Her movie is a realistic, gritty documentary portrait of a time and a place, a crime family melodrama, a Gothic Southern tale, a country noir, an ancient odyssey, and, most importantly of all, a powerful and poignant coming of age story of a young girl forced to mature into a strong, self-reliant, proud young woman. Ree Dolly (a nineteen year old Jennifer Lawrence in what is perhaps her greatest performance), provides the fierce, still center of the film, an ordinary, plain-spoken girl who becomes extraordinary through her unwavering resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles. Like a modern-day Antigone, she depends on a dogged, unshakable faith that people will do the right thing, her stubborn sense of justice coming into sharp and dangerous conflict with the deep, intractable customs of the Ozarks.
***This is an in-depth analysis of Winter's Bone, and therefore contains spoilers.
***This is an in-depth analysis of Winter's Bone, and therefore contains spoilers.
Winter’s Bone, an accomplishment of superb, spare, low-budget artistry, fulfills realism’s promise of showing us people and places we haven’t seen or noticed before. The film traffics in hope as well as despair, an idea seamlessly conveyed through its title image, a shot of the intricately intertwined tree branches of barren winter, with the sun’s soft, dim light faintly visible past the lattice of boughs. This image also communicates the immediacy of the theme of connections in a society that works along near-tribal ties. The first sounds we hear are the slow tones of the country-tinged soundtrack. Dickon Hinchliffe’s mournful musical score made up of fragmented melodies of moody guitars, banjos, and mandolins swerves between despair and hope, shifting suddenly, like Ree’s state of mind, from urgent, intense motifs to fragile and intimate solos. Our first glimpses of life offer faint glimmers of hope: two children, Ree’s siblings, do what all children do: they are energetic, cheerful and playful, jumping on trampolines, skateboarding, playing with dolls and animals. Their innocence has a redemptive power; they do not yet realize they are part of a society that has been left behind, their world and their playground an open junkyard where trailers and cottages are all but indistinguishable from the surrounding scrap heaps. A watchdog on a chain peruses the property carefully, although there isn’t much to watch.
This bleak, unlovely environment is captured through Michael McDonough’s grayish, desaturated cinematography and Mark White’s austere production design, which convey a melancholy, majestic, meticulous sense of place. The chilly, harsh beauty of the Ozarks and the grimy interior landscapes of the characters’ crumbling cabins and trailer homes are at once desolate and picturesque. Only Ree, although looked down upon through the course of the movie for both her age and her gender, seems to possess the guts and smarts necessary to survive and possibly even surpass her surroundings. “Better than nothing” are the first words of the script, and, although she means the dog food, she might be talking about anything in her life.
We never find out what happened to her mother to turn her into a basically catatonic, emotionally hollow shell, and at first don’t know why her father is missing; what we do know is that Ree, at seventeen, is taking on responsibilities that can seem daunting to an adult. She cooks, cleans, hunts, skins, washes, and provides for her mom and younger brother and sister. The film emphasizes Ree’s maturity, patience, and generosity as much as her courage and strength. Sometimes people who have the least to offer are the ones most likely to do so; although they barely have enough for themselves, they don’t hesitate to take in yet another stray dog Sonny (Isaiah Stone) found in the woods. And when Ree takes their horse over to a neighbor’s barn because she can’t afford to feed it, there is an almost unspoken understanding that the animal will be taken in. At the same time, however, Ree teaches Sonny and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) to “never ask for what oughta be offered,” but to graciously accept it when it is. She makes the most out of what she has, remembering it’s “better than nothing.” Her clothes are old, worn, and ill-fitting, but always clean, and her mane of dark blond hair is kept neat and tidy.
Some of the most endearing scenes take place early on, portraying Ree’s loving interactions with her siblings, whom she walks to school every day, quizzing them on spelling and addition. At home, she tries to inspire her brother and sister to be self-reliant and make the most of what they have, teaching them “a little survival,” the determined patience of hunting and the skill of skinning a squirrel. “There’s a bunch of stuff you’re gonna have to get over being scared of,” she tells her brother when he winces at the thought of handling the dead animal. “Do we eat these parts,” he asks about the innards, and her response is as simple, eloquent, and terrifyingly true as the situation allows: “Not yet.” At the school, however, she is an outsider longingly looking in at the life she could have had, captured behind windows curiously observing the classroom settings. The only way out for children like Ree is the army, and her hopes of enlisting are shattered when her father disappears.
The character’s quest begins after her meth-cooking father has skipped bail, and she finds out he has put the house up for bond. Before bounty hunters can come to take away everything they have, she swears she will find him. Ree is hostile and wary of the law, becoming the law unto itself, the kind that’s not written down anywhere to be collected in books, but is implied and understood by everyone living in this cast-off region. “Girl, I’ve been looking,” the sheriff tells her; “I said I’ll find him,” she shoots back without hesitation, fierce in her determination. She is prepared to cross social and legal boundaries on her search, and there is always an equal mix of humility and authority in her stance, the way she talks and walks, and the polite yet harsh, bitter tang and plain-spoken eloquence of her language, adapted by Granik and Anne Powell from Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel. Her journey will take her increasingly deeper into an interconnected network of backwoods thugs that live in sub-human conditions, all bound by a strict code of silence. Every door she knocks on is answered by someone more hostile than the last, men and women alike taciturn, watchful, and wary, suspecting not only outsiders but the ultimate insiders as well, their own friends and family. Cinematic mob behavior is so often predictable, the Dollys’ unfathomable.
The one person she can count on unconditionally during her journey is her best friend, Gail (Lauren Sweetser). As one of the few people—besides the main character—to steer clear of drugs, Gail is sweet and understanding, but, no older than Ree herself, there’s only so much Gail can do with a baby to take care of and an inconsiderate brute for a husband. The strong patriarchal structure of the Ozarks is made evident when Ree goes to see her friend and has to ask the husband’s permission to come into the house although Gail’s parents are the ones paying for it. “It’s different once you’re married,” Gail explains. “It really must be,” Ree tells her, “cause you ain’t never used to eat no shit.” The situation is hardly better when she goes to see her gaunt, coked-up, cooked-out uncle, Teardrop (a scarily convincing John Hawkes). When his wife offers to help the girl, he snaps, “I already told you to shut up once with my mouth.” Ree can instantly tell her uncle knows where his brother is, or at least if he’s still alive, but he refuses to answer her questions. When she insists he grabs her by the neck in a violent and shocking development that shows the true nature of the Ozarks and its inhabitants—as unpredictable and volatile as quicksilver. Ree’s surprise is captured in an extreme closeup, and it is in scenes like this and the few long shots and overhead shots that we remember how young, scared, and small she really is beneath the bravado and confident stance.
In this universe, women function almost as gatekeepers, and it is through wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers that Ree must go to reach the people with any power. These older women work at protecting their mangy, surly husbands, but are perfectly capable of doing the dirty work when required to. The scariest of the female characters is undoubtedly the crime boss’s wife, Merab (Dale Dickey), a waif-thin woman with the falling hair, blemished skin, and rotting, blackened teeth that come along with methamphetamine use. Without making an actual appearance, crystal meth is a character in its own right, creating paranoia and corruption everywhere. Merab promptly sends her away, but Ree insists on seeing Thump (Ronnie Hall), proudly but politely pleading “I need to, I really really need to ma’am, please. Some of our blood at least is the same. Ain’t that supposed to mean something? Ain’t that what is always said?” The woman’s faces changes, taking on a look of surprise, and perhaps an inkling of respect for Ree’s refusal to be rejected. “Ain’t you got no man to do this,” she asks, implying that she cannot handle her business because she is a woman. As Ree patiently waits, Granik shows us two images staggering in their incongruity: a small butterfly trinket and a white marble statue of two children, a boy and a girl, on a slide. These are the last vestiges of innocence in this environment, and they are old, broken, still, lifeless, and cold. The red iron bar in the foreground of the second shot, with its paint peeling off, suggests how childhood and innocence are hemmed in and decaying.
“Talking just creates witnesses, and he don’t want for any of those,” Merab explains to Ree before preparing to send her on her way, and, for the second time, the older woman is taken by surprise and made to turn back around. “So I guess blood don’t mean shit to the big man, am I understandin’ that right,” Ree asks, and her resilience and daring is astounding. In a community of shifting loyalties, where most people share the same blood, responsibilities to relatives “are watered down thin.” Her uncle shows up at Ree’s house and drags her to his truck, saying he has to show her something. As the music and the suspense build to almost unbearable heights, we’re not sure whether he’s planning to help her or hurt her, and the same can be said about everyone in her family. Teardrop is forced to decide where his true allegiances lie, and, although he alternately threatens and protects Ree, ultimately is on her side. This bond is so uncertain, though, that scenes in which she is framed in the foreground as he approaches her from behind can still build tension in the audience. “You always have scared me,” she tells Teardrop later on, and his response is, “That’s cause you’re smart.”
Blond Milton (William White), out of the same familial obligation, offers to take Sonny in case the Dollys lose their house. “You what? My ass you will,” is Ree’s response. When faced with the possibility of losing her brother, she is as fierce and protective as a lioness over her cubs. “You go straight to hell, you son of a bitch,” she tells him, “Sonny and Ashlee will die livin’ in a cave with me and Mama before they spend one night with you!” As the only capable member of her family, Ree feels it is her duty to raise her siblings. A bit of a miracle, given her surroundings, is that the character has never been attracted by drugs; the open expression of disgust on her face when Teardrop offers her cocaine speaks volumes about her values and strength of character. However brave and resilient, however, Ree is not invulnerable to fear, doubt, and disappointment. In one poignant scene, she walks with her mom into the woods and tries to talk to her. “There’s things hapennin’ and I don’t know what to do,” she explains, pleading helplessly in a closeup, “Can you please help me this one time?” The scene is heartbreaking, almost painful to watch, because we have come to care deeply about and respect this girl, and it’s unsettling, after all she’s been through, to remember she is just a child. At the cattle auction, there is an extended shot of a small dog outside the cow pen looking in, a perfect metaphor for her situation and the large, uncontrollable, and dangerous forces she is battling.
After Ree finds out her dad’s dead she doesn’t take time to mourn, but gets even more resolute in her pursuit. Still, she stands up for her father much in the same way she does throughout the whole movie, until she finds out why he was killed. “Dad ain’t no runner,” she tells the bounty hunter. “I’m a Dolly, bread and buttered, and that’s how I know dad’s dead.” Her journey will take her to lower depths than she or the viewers could have ever imagined. Going to visit Merab again, she ends up with a hot drink on her face and the cup upside the head. The image goes black, and then out of focus, as we get her heightened, subjective perspective after the beating. Her face is horribly swollen, there’s blood running down her chin from a busted lip, her eyes look as if they’ll take on bluish hues in a few hours. It’s almost unbearable to watch this kind of violence and cruelty inflicted against someone so young. “What ever are we going to do with you damned girl,” Megan asks. “Kill me, I guess,” Ree says dispassionately. “That idea’s been said already,” is the chilling response. “Help me! Bet nobody said that idea before.”
Just before she can get a response, Thump steps into the room. Ree’s pluck is incredible; in her current condition, she still doesn’t give up. “I got two kids that can’t feed themselves yet,” she pleads. “My mom’s sick, and she’s always gonna be sick. Pretty soon the law’ll come and take our house and throw us out into the field to live like dogs. If dad is dead, the debt is paid, and whoever killed him, I don’t need to know all that. But I can’t forever carry those kids and my mom, not without that house.” All of this is said in a completely calm, reasoning voice, without emotion, without crying or complaining. She is laying it all bare and trusting that her “family” will do the right thing. Teardrop comes to get her, and is told, “She’s been warned. Warned once.” There is no second or third strike in this family; if you step out of line you pay for it, regardless of gender or age. Teardrop finally persuades them to let her go, and the incident helps him decide to help her. Because he stood by while his brother was killed, he gets a chance to redeem himself by helping his (now) nearest relative. The excruciating, tender scenes of her tending her wounds are one of the points in which Granik’s vision diverges form that of a male director’s; most heroes peacocking through mainstream films get bloodied up on a regular basis and never seem to get bruised. Could you imagine John McClane disinfecting a cut and squeezing s friend’s hand because it burns? Or watching impassively as the tooth he’s just lost sinks to the bottom of a glass of water with a sickening clink? Granik is interested in the reality beneath the illusion of invulnerability that pervades so many male-directed movies.
In one of the next scenes Ree sits on the couch, and her light gray sweater blends into the cushions and the colorless background. She is part of this environment, and cannot give up her house. The snapshots of an old photo album suggest the Dollys have fallen from a more prosperous, maybe even middle-class life. This is the dark underbelly of middle-class suburban life, the horrifying flipside of the American Dream gone bad. Later Ree will wait in the parking lot of a bar while Teardrop goes around asking questions, and Granik captures the American flag reflected on her windshield right over her face. When Teardrop fails to get answers, he smashes the windshield of a neighboring car with an axe. The juxtaposition of these two images—the flag and the shattering of glass—shows how fragile and easily broken the American life we take for granted can be.
The climax of the film, and Ree’s true passing into adulthood comes when she is taken to her father’s body. The dark, cold blue cinematography spells danger and foreboding when Merab shows up on the girl’s porch to get her and then puts a sack over her head and drives her out to the middle of nowhere. The tension is almost intolerable when the characters file into a boat with an electric chainsaw. Ree must reach into the water to retrieve her dad’s hands for the police, a stomach-turning rite of passage. The force and power as she penetrates the water’s calm surface is startling. As the first hand gets sawed off, Ree is crying, cringing, and looking away. For the second one she is silent, stoic, and unafraid. This is the official end of her childhood and the irretrievable loss of her innocence.
The ending of the film is quietly heroic in its pointedly anti-climactic unremarkability. After going through all of this to keep her ramshackle house, Ree realizes that life will go on much as it has before. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” she tells Sonny and Ashlee, assuring them, “I ain’t going anywhere.” There is a strange mix of sadness and joy in this resolution. It is both an ending and a new beginning. Ree will most likely lose yet another father figure when Teardrop figures out who killed his brother and, without any display of sentimentality or elaboration, walks off to avenge him. At the same time, however, he has brought the children two chicks, a symbol of new life and new hope.
Winter’s Bone is a movie about sordid lives, tribal ties, and individual choices, a level, unflinching look at a community that essentially exists off the grid, way back in the back country, where front yards are filled with cars in various states of assembly and disassembly and cracked toilet bowls. Granik shows not condescension but compassion. Her film doesn’t live above these people; it lives among them. Plainly and beautifully shot, Winter’s Bone grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. It is so fully engrossing, the cast members so rooted, marked by hard times, and utterly authentic that when the end credits roll and the spell is broken you feel tired, harrowed, as if you had just gotten back from a few days’ journey to the Ozarks. The film is straightforward and suspenseful, but also surprising and subtle. Jennifer Lawrence’s quietly heroic, precise performance offers a rich emotional anchor; we feel like we know this girl and yet we are awed by her, by her level stare and unhurried voice, by her resilience and single-minded determination. In a completely non-ideological way, Winter’s Bone is a great feminist work.