Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.
The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.
A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).
If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).
These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.
In Winter’s Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winter’s Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)
We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).
What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.
Winter’s Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.
That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.