Oh man, more people should have seen this movie. But I can understand why it didn’t exactly storm the box office. The story follows the trials and tribulations of Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old girl who has to care for her borderline-catatonic mother and her two young siblings (a twelve year old brother, Sonny, and a six year old sister, Ashlee), after their career-criminal father, Jessup, skips bail. Ree isn’t too upset that Jessup’s gone — or she wouldn’t be, if he hadn’t put their house up as part of the bail money, which means that if she can’t find him in a few days, she and her young wards will be out on the street. And so Ree embarks on a journey through the meth-addled, poverty stricken landscape of the Missouri Ozarks. When she eventually finds her father (dead, and rotting in a bog), she has to cut off his hands with a chainsaw so that she can prove his death to the bail bondsman.
Wow, what fun, right?
But descriptions of Winter’s Bone tend to make it seem more “worthy” (taste the sneer in my scare-quotes), than it is. There’s no learning, no hugging, here, and to say that the movie is “about” the toll methamphetamine is taking on poor communities in middle America — which it totally is — conjures up a wholly inappropriate image of a “message” picture along the lines of Tracy Jordan’s Hard to Watch. The horrors of meth abuse here are kept in the background, and it’s by far the stronger for it, both as a film and as a treatment of meth abuse.
Critics who didn’t get lost in the social-issue aspect of the movie have talked about it as a neo-noir, a description which strikes much closer to the heart. There are inscrutable criminal syndicates at work, icebergs of which we see the barest tips. There’s a detective, searching for an answer she would rather not find, but persevering out of a sense of duty. Every character — every frame of the film — swims through a haze of futility and moral rot. The potential for violence floats in the air like cigarette smoke (although no one here is smoking, or at least not tobacco), and cathartically explodes into actual violence in a few carefully chosen scenes. But then on the other hand, there are some ways in which Winter’s Bone is as removed from noir as it’s possible to get.
Ree is a standard issue noir detective in that she goes up against insurmountable forces armed only with savviness, courage, stubbornness, and a willingness to get the tar beaten out of her. This much comes with the territory. But her motivation is completely different. I read somewhere – don’t know where, and I wish I did – that the quintessential noir hero is a man for whom a twisted version of the protestant work ethic has supplanted all other codes. He doesn’t do his job because it’s the right thing: often he knows it isn’t. He doesn’t do it for the money: often the money is inadequate, or he has reason to believe that it won’t materialize. He does it because he said that he would, and a man keeps his promises. This is not about honor in the classic sense. He doesn’t think of himself as a good man, and he certainly doesn’t hold out for some kind of future reward, heavenly or otherwise. There is no motivation beyond keeping the promise, doing the job, finishing what was started. The noir hero clings to the code because the alternative is flailing around in an abyss of moral relativism. Man’s willingness to follow the code, even knowing that the code is a shell, is what makes him heroic.
Ree’s actions are those of a noir hero. But her motivations are nothing like this. Everything that she does is in care of her family. She isn’t looking for closure, or justice, or any of that nonsense. She wants food on the table and a roof over their heads. In fiction, at least, these are traditional “girl values.” In life, plenty of men take care of their kids, but it’s not something that features in a lot of hard boiled detective stories. So this brings up the other thing that people talk to with regard to Winter’s Bone: feminism. (As if it wasn’t box office poison already.)
Ree Dolly is marked by the absence of men in her life, and I don’t mean the Cathy Guisewite “Aack! I need a man!” kind of absence. There’s no love interest that defines her character — and while she does seem to love her father, she’s not overly concerned by his absence. Tracking him down is a strictly financial proposition. It would be patently absurd to label her “the absentee meth-cooker’s daughter.” But the other women she runs across in her travels could pretty easily be summed up as “the asshole heavy metal fan’s wife,” “the psychopath’s girlfriend,” “the drug dealer’s daughter,” and “the woman who stands in some non-specified but obviously significant relationship to the crime kingpin.” Gail, the asshole heavy metal fan’s wife, is an interesting case. Ree comes to Gail to borrow a car, so that she won’t have to walk all the way down to where the real assholes live. At first, Gail says she can’t help: the truck is her husband’s, and he won’t lend it out. “Why not?” asks Ree, indignantly. “He doesn’t tell me why not, he just tells me no,” Gail replies. “It’s different when you’re married.”
“It must be,” says Ree, “because when you were single I don’t remember you eating no shit.”
A few scenes later, Gail shows up on Ree’s doorstep, truck keys apologetically in hand. “You truly are the person I always thought you were,” says Ree.
I’m just giving my best recollection of the dialogue here (and throughout), because I returned the film to Netflix before I realized that I wanted to write about it, and it’s still too recent and little-seen a film for every significant scene to have been uploaded to youtube. But it’s pretty close. What’s interesting about this scene, other than the subtly wonderful and wonderfully subtle depiction of a friendship, and the delicious cadence of Ree’s dialogue (which I’m sure I’ve not quite captured), is the structure it sets up, in which a man gets in Ree’s way and a woman helps her get around him. This is the basis for literally every encounter Ree has in the first three quarters of the movie. It’s so schematic that after a while it begins to feel like a fairy tale about the female solidarity. Even Ree’s two younger siblings play into this, although in a slightly different way. Both kids do violent things in the film. The boy tries to protect Ree from a low-level drug runner. This turns out to be a thoroughly meaningless gesture: it’s senseless shouting for shouting’s sake, and if anything only escalates the situation. The sister’s violence involves gunning down a squirrel that the family stews up for dinner. More precisely she helps Ree shoot the squirrel – she spots it, then Ree aims and asks if Ashlee would like to pull the trigger. So the kind of violence that’s done here is productive, and it’s built into a structure of helping, teaching, etc, qualities which again are traditionally marked as feminine. Much more than the cavalcade of male obstacles, it’s this kind of thing that makes the movie exciting as a feminist text. And if nothing else, Winter’s Bone would have to be seen as strongly feminist simply by virtue of having such an interesting, complex, active (both in the sense of “gets shit done” and in the sense of “drives the narrative action”), female main character surrounded by such vividly sketched female supporting characters. There’s more to movies than ideology, of course, and more to ideology than gender alone. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see a movie where the treatment of gender roles completely escapes the standard model.
If only Winter’s Bone were that movie.
The turd in the buttermilk is Ree’s uncle Teardrop. Which is kind of funny, because you get the feeling that that’s Teardrop’s designated role within the world of the film, too. In his first appearance, he just seems like another asshole. When Ree asks for his help, he tells her to pound leather. When his girlfriend asks again on Ree’s behalf he tells her, chillingly, “I’ve already said no once with my mouth.” When Ree asks a third time, he lunges across the room and grabs her by the neck and face, staring her down with violence in his eyes until she agrees not to ask him again. Later on he casually does a bump of meth and offers some to Ree like it was a stick of gum (with another chilling line: “You developed the taste for it yet?”). But towards the end of the film he gets humanized. When Ree’s been taken captive by the meth-father in chief, Thump, and gets brutally stomped by some of Thump’s female associates, it’s Teardrop who shows up like a knight in armor to rescue her. (This, by the way, would be the point three-quarters of the way through the movie where the male-gate/female-key structure stops happening.) He confides in her, explaining his earlier behavior: the reason he doesn’t want to help Ree find out about Jessup is that if he ever learned what happened to his brother, he’d have to do something about it. And he’s smart enough to realize that this would eventually lead to his own death (“going toes up myself” as he indelibly puts it).
There’s an interesting parallel in this to Ree’s own situation. She dreams of running away to join the military — not because she’s particularly into that, and I think perhaps not even for the money (although that’s the reason she gives when asked), but because it’s a way out, the only way out available to her. And then it turns out it’s not even available, because she couldn’t take her family with her during basic training and combat operations. If she was free to join the military, though… what kind of escape would that be? She could “go toes up” that way too: people get shot in the army, I hear tell. And Ree seems to realize this, on some level. “I would be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” she tells the kids near the end of the film. “I ain’t going anywhere.” And she seems to know exactly what that means, on all possible levels. The line and the delivery are more heartwarming and soul-blighting than I thought was simultaneously possible.
Teardrop ends the movie on a very different note. Right at the end, when everything seems to have ended happily (or as happily as a film that features chainsaw-dismemberment can end), he figures out who killed Jessup. We never learn how, we never learn who. “I know,” he tells Ree. That’s all. She obliquely tries to convince him not to do it, offering him her fathers old banjo. Teardrop sits down next to the kids and plays a couple of haunting, uncertain bars, then hands it back, saying “I never had the gift for it, like your old man did.” And then he drives off, presumably to his death, while Ashlee tunelessly strums the banjo on its open strings. This is exactly the kind of thing that noir heroes do. And the film, and the viewer, and Ree(!), all seem magnetically drawn to Teardrop’s particular “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” breed of violence, even though it’s established early on that he’s a wife beater, a meth addict, and a sociopath that even the other sociopaths are afraid of. This kind of ambivalent attraction/repulsion is all over the older noir traditions… but it attaches to the female characters, not the male ones. Teardrop Dolly is an homme fatal.
Does this fascination make the film regressive and patriarchal? Not as such. I think it makes it… well, “accurate” might be the right word. I’m NOT saying that emotionally closed-off, violent men really do have some kind of special wonder-asshole power rings that let them solve problems beyond the capabilities of womenfolk, and that they should therefore get some kind of get-off-the-hook-for-being-an-asshole-free card. All I am saying that patriarchy really is seductive. The patriarchal role model presented by Teardrop is an attractive one, in narrative terms, even for filmmakers who are trying to struggle against it.
And if they sometimes lose that struggle… well, like I said, there’s more to a film than its political content. In this case, I think the threads of reinscribed patriarchy surrounding Teardrop’s character end up making the film stronger as art. Winter’s Bone is so aggressively focused on nastiness that it would actually hurt the piece, artistically, if its political content wasn’t slightly nasty too. Imagine an ending where Ree does convince Teardrop to give up his noirish cycle-of-violence ways, where he just sits down on the porch and plays the banjo for them, and maybe sticks around for a plate of squirrel stew and helps with the dishes after. From a feminist perspective, this would be the happy-happy ending. It’s the ending we should want: if the Rees of the world can’t reach the Teardrops of the world, can’t eventually change them in some way, then it’s a faint and sorry hope that feminism offers us. But artistically this ending would never fly. When I imagine it, it sticks in my craw. Too much sickly-sweet, too much learning, too much hugging. Or imagine an ending where Teardrop’s vendetta is not presented as tragic, but as merely stupid and pointless: just another damn male obstacle getting in the way of Ree’s domestic happiness. That wouldn’t work either. It’d be too pat, too comfortable. Smug, even. The ending of Winter’s Bone is troubling, if you’re the type to analyze movies from this perspective. I think I started writing this post mostly because I was troubled by it. But it also feels like the only possible way they could have ended the piece. And that’s really the reason why more people should see the film. Not for the meth, not for the noir, not for the feminism. But because everything about it feels like the only possible choice they could have made.