Few films condense so many complex emotions into a few brief minutes at the end as Winter’s Bone: sudden relief, followed immediately by wonder at why you feel so relieved, chased closed behind by fear for the future, rounded out with acceptance of all those feelings mixed together. Then we hear a hymn—the old gospel song “Farther Along”—and we go out.
These few minutes in the film’s finale complete the viewer’s immersion into the life of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, forced at a young age to act as father and mother both to her two younger siblings, as well as a sort of Ozark woman warrior uncovering the truth behind her father’s disappearance. The responsibility she bears threatens to overwhelm her, and in a lesser film, her survival might be portrayed as triumph. Yet in the film’s last line, as Ree tells her brother and sister, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” triumph mixes with regret at Ree’s coming to define herself so exclusively by her burdens.
Ree’s burdens are many: even before her meth-cooking father disappeared, he had been in and out of prison—and other women’s beds. Her mother’s mind cracked under the pressure, and she is unable to provide Ree with any help in daily chores or in the difficult decisions she faces. In one intense scene, Ree tries to break through the fog of her mother’s mind, pleading for some sort of guidance, but to no avail. In order to care for her mother and siblings, Ree has had to drop out of school—early on in the film, we see her looking in through the window of the gym at her former school, watching ROTC drills that seem extravagantly attractive in their complete separation from her hand-to-mouth existence.
Once Ree discovers that her father put their house up for bond and that she has only a few days to track him down before his court date, she begins asking questions about him among her extended family and uncovers tense silence that hints at the family’s rigid codes of justice and vengeance.
Part of Ree’s difficulty is that, in her world, burdens and responsibilities are still strictly divided by gender. When she begins asking questions about her missing father, a woman challenges her, “Ain’t you got no men could do this?” Ree joins the ranks of Antigone and Fa Mu Lan as a woman who suffers nobly for shouldering what her culture views as male responsibilities. (Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, from which the film is adapted, calls attention to the lingering gender division even in the construction of homes: “Most places still had two doors in accordance with certain readings of Scripture, one door for men, one door for women, though nobody used them strictly that way anymore.”) Still, Ree’s extended family acts by a gender-specific code: only women can beat up other women, and only men can be avengers. These informal codes governing behavior are stronger than any law-abiding urge—Ree’s family members are notorious criminals, mostly involved in making and selling meth.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the film was Ree’s bewilderment at her best friend Gail’s acceptance of her own burdens, burdens more typically faced by young women in her town: the sudden acquisition of a baby and a husband (the latter on account of the former). Ree scolds Gail for acquiescing to the circumstances of her life, yet Ree is slow to realize that she is doing the same, albeit in different circumstances.
However, because Ree steps outside the defined boundaries for a woman in her culture, she’s able to confuse people enough that she slips through the cracks and accomplishes some of what she needs to do, without participating directly in the cycle of revenge that binds the men in her extended family. She faces painful consequences, but she does what she needs to do for the survival of her siblings and her mentally ill mother.
All of this could so easily slip into melodrama, but the film is grounded in strong acting (especially Jennifer Lawrence as Ree), in a mostly unsentimental score, and in seemingly ordinary moments of Ree’s younger siblings jumping on the trampoline, playing in haystacks, or caring for their pets. It also, for the most part, resists the “Southern” clichés of other recently acclaimed indie films like Shotgun Stories (in which—I kid you not—a good ol’boy’s beloved hound dog gets snake-bit on account of a family feud). The feuds of indie fare are generally ancient, inexplicable grudges that send the message that Southern people are somehow intrinsically violence-prone degenerates. Though the Dolly family is feuding, they have quite logical reasons to do so: they fight over things like meth-cookers snitching on other meth-cookers to the law. Unlike Mysterious Southern Hate Syndrome, meth is a documented problem facing much of rural America, north and south, though it’s particularly rampant in the Ozarks of both Missouri and Arkansas.
The one exception to Winter’s Bone’s cliché-resistance is in the film’s non-score music, including the opening song “Missouri Waltz” (must viewers be told so blatantly within the first few seconds of the film that we’re in Missouri?) and a scene in which Ree visits a house where everybody seems to have brought his or her instruments for a mountain-music jam session (it seems too obvious that the director found a favorite folk-singer that she wanted to include).
Part of Winter’s Bone’s superiority to imitation-Southern-Gothic schlock is no doubt due to the source material of Woodrell’s novel, to which it very closely adheres, especially in dialogue. The only major scene in the film that isn’t in the book is a rather curious one, in which Ree, after some major setbacks, talks with an army recruiter at her former school. The conversation shows a more vulnerable side of Ree as she naïvely asks if she could bring her brother and sister with her to training. The recruiter responds kindly, though the realities he has to voice are harsh. In some ways, the scene seems inconsistent with Ree’s character, given that she mistrusts outside authority (at least, the police), but it does remind viewers that she is just a teenager and that her world and the recruiter’s are mutually incomprehensible.
In one interaction with her siblings, Ree instructs her brother emphatically, “Never ask for what ought to be offered.” It’s tempting to wholeheartedly applaud Ree’s simultaneous self-sufficiency and self-giving nature: she bears others’ burdens without complaint. However, there’s a fine line between bearing others’ burdens and defining yourself by those burdens—ultimately a form of pride. Ree walks that line, and the film watches as she does so, acknowledging complexity without passing judgment. Would that all films about the South would do the same.