Much of “Winter’s Bone” makes you wonder. Why do these beaten-down Ozarks women always seem to be the gatekeepers, the first ones to tersely welcome you in or to warn you to beat it before their slumbering men arise and beat you? Why does this dour collection of meth-cursed kinfolk grab you by the throat one moment, then go out on a limb for you the next?
Perhaps most wondrous, why does Ree, a 17-year-old who has seen life twist and deform her parents nearly beyond recognition, believe in goodness and love enough to risk her life for it?
“Winter’s Bone,” one of the 10 Academy Award nominees for best picture, has its share of reviewers wondering. The film involves something “primal, almost Greek in its archaic power,” something of “tribal ties and individual choices.” (New York Times). The film “sustains the balance between far-out fable and gritty slice of life,” a journey to womanhood that seems “the stuff of a Grimm fairy tale” (NPR). It is “one of the great feminist works in film” (New Yorker).
For those who haven’t seen it, “Winter’s Bone” shows Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) fighting to save her home and to hold together what remains of her family. With a mother depicted as nearly catatonic and a father nowhere to be found, Ree is the one who cares for her little brother and sister in their home in the Ozark Mountains of rural Missouri. Soon comes news that her father has disappeared after bailing out of jail on charges of cooking “crank.” He put up his home to post bond. Should he fail to appear in court, Ree and family will lose the home.
Ree resolutely sets out to find her father. No one, it seems, wants her to learn what became of him. That includes her wired Uncle Teardrop and her distant, shady kin who are bound together by blood and blood feuds. One woman kinfolk mentions a nephew’s name and asks Ree, “Didn’t he shoot your daddy one time?”
The story’s women help us understand the world Ree faces. Their worn, haggard faces show years of having been let down by their men. They seem ever ready to cringe from the next blow. They manage to get key things done, but they have to finagle and work back in the shadows, outside the world of men.
Given this, Ree’s choice becomes all the more gripping. Who could blame her for giving up or getting out, for letting her siblings wind up wherever they land, more flotsam in this debris-strewn landscape? But Ree holds onto a kind of simple faith, a belief for which little around her lends support. It is a belief that nurturing her brother and sister is the right endeavor, a good and beautiful calling. Ree believes this enough to risk her life for it. Amidst all the brokenness around her, she fights not only for family, but also for a better notion of love.
This film season we have two young Southern heroines showing true grit. But Ree isn’t seeking retribution for what became of her father. It makes her story all the more remarkable.
– Robert Digitale