Hollywood has trained us to anticipate a soaring resolution to a flinty heroine’s foray into enemy territory. Romantic fulfillment, career success, or the upending of the status quo will pull the strands of the narrative together and tie them up into a tidy package for the audience. Then a movie comes along that surprises you with its reversal of cinematic formulas. Suddenly, we’re confronted with our own cultural expectations. The experience is unsettling, but instructive — now more than ever, as Americans struggle with tough times that demand altered expectations as much as concrete solutions.
Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and adapted from the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, is one such movie. Navigating a hostile landscape, with barely a glimmer of hope to guide her path, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the 17-year-old protagonist, confronts a moral challenge that would test the wisdom of Solomon, only to face an even greater challenge: an invitation to a life of struggle fueled by nothing but hope.
When her father, a veteran methamphetamine producer in a dirt-poor patch of the Ozarks, jumps bail, Ree learns that her family will lose their home if he can’t be found: He had put up the house as collateral for his bail bond. She starts to search for him, but discovers that dangerous people have a stake in keeping his fate unresolved. In this brittle rural community in southwestern Missouri, outlaw authority figures prepare to enforce an untenable choice that would leave her family homeless but would secure her own survival. Ree resists, fueled by an urgent need to protect and sustain her emotionally exhausted mother and two young siblings. She cooks them deer stew and squirrel meat, and gets the kids to school.
Initially, her elders are faintly bemused by the girl’s recalcitrance. Warnings, then threats, are issued. Ree and the audience consider other paths that could set her free. Military service quickly emerges as the only option. But Ree is too young to join without her parents’ written permission. And, anyway, there is no trustworthy adult to care for her siblings. By her age, most of the locals have developed a taste for crystal meth.
But the power of this film goes beyond Ree’s stubborn courage and luminous beauty — a respite from the grim spectacle of a hardscrabble existence. Ree’s struggle leads the audience to grapple with a problem that can afflict people in any station of life: the weight of familial responsibilities that force us to cast aside our individual dreams, take up the yoke of duty, husband our resources, and wait for a lucky break. As Ree stakes out her position, the audience sees that she must now confront a new and even more daunting problem: how to endure without letting her burdens become grist for bitterness and resignation. The family portraits glimpsed in the backwoods hollows of her world reveal a likely though not inevitable path of stagnation and early death.
There are multiple ways to interpret Winter’s Bone. For one thing, it can be viewed as a ghastly example of social realism — a fictionalized documentary of a meth-fueled economy and culture. But as I watched Ree draw her family together, the vast drama of human endurance unfolded before me, and a father I know suddenly came to mind. He’s a handsome forty-something lawyer with a beautiful lawyer wife, a talented daughter, and a severely impaired son with whom he spends many of his waking hours when he isn’t “working.” I once asked him how he managed to consider the future, knowing that his son would always depend upon him and wondering if he had the stamina to continue. He thought about my question, and said slowly, “When we first learned that he would always need us, it wasn’t easy. But, now, every other relationship in my life is like a ship passing in the night.”
Winter’s Bone offers not the least hint of an inspiring resolution as a sop for sentimentalists. But the hard, inconvenient truths it illuminates are compelling and instructive, especially in a time that may well test our own powers of endurance. Like Ree, we don’t possess the power to read history backwards: We can’t access data that might fully validate our choices and exertions. We sustain those we love, and we cling to hope.
– Joan Frawley Desmond, a freelance writer who covers religious and cultural issues, blogs at www.thecathoholic.com and lives in Maryland.