I went into Winter’s Bone without having read or heard a word about it. I had high expectations because I’d seen the trailer once in the theater. Trailers are usually hard to watch because they telegraph everything that’s going to be bad about a film, but this one was different. It just made Winter’s Bone look gritty.
Needless to say, the trailer was understated. The film follows the bleak story of Ree, a 17-year-old girl in rural Missouri who has to take care of her younger brother and sister as well as their sick mother. To make things more difficult, a policeman drops by to tell her that if her father doesn’t show up for his court date, the state’s going to seize what he posted for bail: their house.
This one ain’t about happy endings. Whether the girl saves the house or not, a solution to the family’s destitute conditions is unimaginable. They are living the American Nightmare, replete with blood, drugs, and pained folk music. The takeaway message is “don’t move to the Ozarks.” There are no jobs besides cooking crank, joining the army, or raising cattle. The compassionate men are the ones who tell their women, “I told you to shut up the first time with my mouth.” The women who help you out in the end are the same ones who knocked out your tooth and broke your ribs a few days earlier.
Tension is the basic mode of relation here. There’s the strained relationship to animals, which are mostly depicted as chained up, starved, penned, or dead — though, Ree’s sister praises a dog; her brother doesn’t want to pull out a squirrel’s entrails; and her uncle presents them with two chicks that they cherish. There’s also the exceptional status of Ree as head of household and strong woman, but the moments when she’s boldest, when she speaks her piece, are usually promptly followed by actual or threatened physical violence. When she seeks an audience with the local patriarch, the woman gatekeeper says, “Don’t you have a man to do this for you?”
In a world where “doing wrong” consists only of threatening what little livelihood the community has — its meth labs and marijuana gardens — Ree’s father, Jessup, would be helpful to have around. As it is, he’s the absent referent at the center of the film, the hole around which the action circulates. But it never seems as important that he’s found as that he’s looked for, perhaps because we know he’s missing for good. Also perhaps because the film relies on an absent referent. At the end of the film, when Jessup is a hole no longer, the void left by his resolution is filled by the voids of two more nameless anti-characters.
As much as it’s about the loss of a particular person, Winter’s Bone is about the fixation on deprivation itself. Loss permeates the characters’ existences so thoroughly that silence becomes the most communicative medium; taking up the hatchet or the rifle is the best or only way to resolve dilemmas; even though they serve three square meals a day in prison, the threat of negation of autonomy is the prime motivator. And miraculously, there persist a girl and her siblings in this world, surviving despite the impossibility of thriving. Winter’s Bone is a cold film, but by God is it beautiful.