Winter's Bone presents a paradox of family. Set in a dreary landscape where everyone is seemingly related – though one hesitates to actually use the word inbred – this is a story where characters are nevertheless separated from familial warmth. In fact, as the protagonist Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) goes searching for a missing father that who must be found before an important court date, declarations of "kin" are responded with obtuse hostility. Winter's Bone is almost anthropological as a mystery thriller of the Ozarks' desolate deep woods, where director Debra Granik focuses on a particular culture's dysfunctions, which are bred out of economic turmoil, and work to create memories as maladjusted as the families. Here, poverty stretched over a barren wasteland of ramshackle houses and depressed acres has become ripe for the basest self-interest in a rustic hell, sweeping away the buds of compassion, understanding, or altruism.
The opening of the film shows glimmers of what appears to be an idyllic world of family, with two young children playing in a large backyard, jumping on a trampoline and caressing animals. The kind of carefree bliss of children at play, where we can equate the embrace of an animal with the abstract nature of basic compassion, is soon tempered by the reality of this particular household, as bleak as the woods surrounding it. Nature is given room to grow here, but not nurtured enough to become healthy. There are three children in this house – the two youngsters we've seen playing, 12-year-old Sonny and 6-year-old Ashley, and then the older sister, Ree, who has become the surrogate maternal caretaker. The father is absent, and the mother is mute, as mental illness has apparently silenced her permanently. The procurement of food, barely enough for the four people living in the house, seems like it would scarcely provide a fraction of the necessary nutrition for growing bodies. At least there is a roof over their heads.
Or so it would be hoped. The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) unexpectedly arrives at Ree's house, piquing the interest of neighbors who are a little too curious. The sheriff informs Ree that her father Jessup is missing, and so the family is in danger of losing the house. Jessup has a court date to face some drug-related charges, probably having to do with meth production. He put up the family's property as bond. If Jessup does not show up in court, Ree's family loses their home.
This is a wonderful set-up for a different kind of thriller. The protagonist has a race against time where she must find her criminally irresponsible and negligent father in order to keep her family stabilized and safe. The tricky part of this quest narrative that perhaps turns the archetypal "Search for the Father" on its head is that the mythical obstacles, the cyclopses and minotaurs so to speak, acting as subterfuges and barriers to knowledge, are Jessup's – and so Ree's – own family and neighbors residing in the landscape. If they are unwilling to help Ree find her father, then they must care more about him than the fact that his elusiveness will make a family homeless; but they are not protecting Jessup from the law, it becomes evident, but rather they are protecting themselves from any further intrusions from the law. Granik sets up motifs of altruism versus selfishness, where compassion should be natural but is stomped out by hunger. "Never ask for what ought to be offered," Ree tells her young siblings who stare hungrily at a pig being butchered for food by their neighbors. "Ought" is a strange word in this wasteland, so precious that it would be forgotten just to make life bearable. Ree's nurturing compassion is something she tries to pass along to the children, though we should wonder how she developed these traits in the first place.
There is a different morality at work in Winter's Bone, far removed from our familiar genteel liberal humanism of developed metropolises with easy access to books and cyberspace. This world is closer to the post-apocalyptic dog-eat-dog (or man-eat-man) world of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, where ideas of “transcendent oneness with others and the universe” are crushed by desperation. Hunger, desperation, poverty, etc drive people to extreme measures and short-term solutions, from signing up for impractical credit loans to signing up for the military purely for money, as we see Ree do at her high school. These acts only keep people deeper in the mud.
Ree's opposite and foil is her uncle, Jessup's brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), a hard-looking fearsome man who tells her to stop asking questions. Teardrop silences the small kitchen where Ree explains her predicament to her aunt. He conveys a chilliness and knife-sharp malignancy that projects fearsomeness the same way a snake does before it strikes. Jessup is Teardrop's brother, so he can't let him be found, thus all questions must be quelled. End of story. The worries of the women, and of Ree's home, are of considerable less consequence.
This drives to the heart of the culture's sickness, manifested in sexual mores. The fraternal relationships are important, but the larger familial – and feminine ones – are not. There is a conspicuous wedge here between the world of the men – hard drinking and violent brutes – and the women. Men and women are separate in this world, with men controlling business and property while women subserviently whisper in the corners, if they dare to whisper at all. Early on, Ree tries to borrow a car from a school friend of her hers, who has dropped out after having a baby with her boyfriend. The boyfriend won't allow anyone to borrow the car, not even his girlfriend. He has no reason. He needs no reason. It's his property, just as the house is his property, just as the girlfriend – along with the baby – is his property. He is even defensive about allowing Ree to enter the house, for no reason other than she is an outside force interfering with his assortment of properties.
The way the grown men behave in Winter's Bone makes me think of the young boys in the film, whether it's the baby of Ree's friend, or Ree's brother Sonny. A neighbor man, affiliated with Jessup and Jessup's shady dealings (and thus fully assimilated into the norms of this culture) offers to take the boy off Ree's hands. At first it seems a helpful gesture, but it becomes apparent that it is actually a twisted maneuver to initiate the child into the masculine culture. When Sonny tries to protect his older sister from the hostile advances of the neighbor – who is angered by Ree's continuing pursuit for Jessup – the neighbor viciously threatens that he will teach Sonny how to “grow balls,” that is to say, "balls" do not necessarily refer to courage in this culture, as it does in our own, but rather "balls" refer to the masculine norms of unwomanly coldness, and a rejection of compassion (and thus a rejection of how we saw the boy playing during the opening moments of the film). Ree rejects this reactionary worldview, as surely the audience does, but that does not necessarily split the masculine and feminine into a binary where one is evil and the other good (i.e. – The Balls vs. The Heart). For Ree, there is balance, and she wants to teach both of her siblings to cook just as she wants to teach them how to hunt and skin animals for survival. But the unchecked brutality of the masculine power structure in the culture, so estranged from compassionate temperance and nurture, necessarily has crushed any kind of sexual harmony. Men like Teardrop are not allowed to feel (which makes his name ironic), while women like Ree's mother are silent. If there is any sexual harmony at all, it is seen in the consciousness of the music, a ritual act expressing a geographical heritage, a collective memory, a link to the past which thus associates with the concept of genealogy.
The "Alpha Male" chief of this backwoods culture is the patriarch identified as Thump, a burly, mostly hidden old man who is presumably the architect of most of the meth-producing operations that provide the area's nefarious backbone, giving the struggling families on the countryside enough to live on both economically and chemically. Ree is warned not to talk to Thump, and despite a blood relation, she must obey and walk away. Less of a man than a force, Thump becomes kind of an omniscient and ineluctable abstraction for masculine norms. If Jessup has disappeared for good or is, as it increasingly seems to be, dead, Thump would know. Ree becomes keen to this prospect as does the audience, and Winter's Bone adopts a familiar trope of the organized crime drama, where it seems Jessup was killed to keep things secret. But Ree continues to refuse obeying the directives of her culture, because of basic human necessity (keeping her home). She is punished. But we should notice that it's not the men who attack and beat her to a pulp. Rather, it's the women, surrounding her like a white-trash coven. Ree's corporeal punishment cannot even be physically linked back to the men, who only look on.
We learn a possible motivation for this. Teardrop appears, and seeing his bruised and battered niece he is told by the women that they beat her, not the men. The women are so subjugated here, and so absorbed in this abjection, that if Teardrop were to seek any kind of retribution for his niece, it necessarily would be visited on the women, not the men. He replies, "She ain't my brother," meaning that her relationship to him as a female family member is of considerably less consequence than a masculine link. Teardrop is looking for answers, and is angry at this culture too, though for perhaps misdirected reasons. Teardrop's name begins to betray him, and we glimpse a kind of kinship struggling to glimmer through the social barriers in place between him and Ree. Their distance is accented in the angle of how they are photographed in his truck (rarely have two people in the same car looked so distant from each other), but he is suddenly vulnerable, a large contrast to the abusive man we first met.
Teardrop's plotted revenge against the masculine elders of the culture upsets the inherent hard-line norms and moves him closer to Ree's sense of family. Statues of domestic bliss decorate the barren environment like frozen specters of a proper family that perhaps "could have been." Both Ree and Teardrop think of Jessup and how this missing father and brother became who he was, whose actions resulted in the mental illness of his wife and whose desperation put his own house up for bond. Ree sees photographs of her father in happier days, perhaps decades removed from the present. That memory of Jessup is eradicated, just as Jessup is eradicated, "nowhere," dissolved into nothing. Memory, like family, is affected by culture, and edited accordingly. "You forget you know it," Ree is told regarding the fate of her father upon its discovery. The past is meaningless when grasped by the powerful hands of men like Thump. Jessup is not anywhere after all. The warmth of the man in the old photographs has been cooled by the socioeconomic demands of circumstance, the numbing qualities of available narcotics feeding off of those economics, and the reactionary culture already in place.
These resonances are owed to the bleak and blue atmosphere created by director Granik, but also owe much to the extraordinary work of her leads. Newcomer Lawrence plays Ree as a diamond in the rough, with longings and determinations that fiercely strive to persevere in a blank hell that cannot possibly allow such qualities in a woman. Hawkes, so impressionable in his small role as an informant in Miami Vice (2006), is a revelation of ambivalent terror and oddly confused and misdirected nobility as Teardrop. "You always scared me," Ree admits to him. "That's 'cause you're smart," he answers, and Hawkes' snakelike cool stare makes us believe every word.
There is resolution at the conclusion of Winter's Bone, but only a glimpse of something consoling. Though set in a backwoods world, the culture seen in the film is just as estranged from sentimental notions of family and nature as the most roboticized cyberscape in our industrialized world is. Compassion and human understanding are not absent, but like the truth, they are hidden, being that they are feared to upset the balance of a tightly controlled world of basic systems of power and gender.