Warning: Winter’s Bone spoilers ahead. See the movie then read it, unless you’re not going to see the movie, then just read it. Also ahead, housing crisis spoilers.
It is as yet unclear if Winter’s Bone is the kind of indie film that will catch mainstream attention in America. Debra Granik’s sophomore picture took the grand jury prize for dramatic feature at Cannes, but the film about the post-noir struggles of a 17-year old girl in rural Missouri has yet to enter a central artery of the cultural bloodstream. Winter’s Bone (adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell) as a plot and a film rests heavily on the shoulders of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the de facto matriarch of a family living at the edge of both starvation and civilization. She cares for her two (adorable) younger siblings and her mother, who is zonked out on a mixture of prescription drugs and barely appears in the film. Her father is the absent center, a degenerate meth dealer (and user), he creates the film’s tension by posting the house where his family lives as collateral for a bond and then disappearing. Ree sets off to find him before she and her family are made homeless. This sounds like it could be the set-up for a harmless Disney movie about plucky orphans, but Winter’s Bone isn’t that.
It would probably be wrong to call Winter’s Bone a coming-of-age film since the protagonist begins the film caring for a family on her own, but there is a transformation in Ree. She dives into her father’s meth network to pull him out and save the family, even if it’s a world that she only knows through whispers leaked beneath closed doors. This is the traditional premise for the quest narrative – the hero must find or recover some thing that will restore balance, through a series of delays and encounters, and, in doing so, transform her character. But Granik takes the expansive plot of a quest and tightens the space of the film to a circle the size of a summer-camp grounds. Ree wanders from house to house, up and down the Ozarks meth-distribution hierarchy, in search of information but never seems to walk longer than the distance between college dorms. She knows some of the people she seeks, and knows of more. The community is wound around a silent understanding and its members’ ability to know what and when not to know. Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree’s incorporation into the adult world around her, as are many stories about young people. But this one still ain’t Disney.
Her father is dead. I can’t point to a moment when this realization occurs because Granik never succumbs to melodrama. Ree must bring back her father alive or proof of his death, and when she discovers that he was informing on his higher-ups to avoid jail, her search switches to the latter. Unlike in traditional quest narratives, the episodes here are short and unpleasant. Much of the film and most of its conflicts take place in or around doorways, with Ree stuck on the outside, getting only cryptic warnings. She gets some help from her psychotic addict uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), but his role has been expanded in too many of the reviews I’ve seen (at least partly, in my mind, to provide the semblance of a male lead in a film that neither has nor needs one). Normally, the hero overcomes the serious harm and completes the quest, reproducing himself as heroic. In Winter’s Bone, this violence is the quest’s goal. The warning Ree receives from every corner of her community is not a threat, it’s a promise.
Lewis Hyde in his landmark book on the economics of art, The Gift, writes about liminal or threshold gifts, those presents that mark a transition in life. He cites everything from the tooth fairy to wedding presents as examples. These gifts play important roles in society, and Hyde finds instances of them in mythologies and folk tales world-wide. Liminal gifts are also tied inextricably to death and transformation. Hyde writes, “They are not mere compensation for what is lost, but the promise of what lies ahead. They guide us toward new life, assuring our passage away from what is dying.” In Ree’s case, this dying is not metaphorical. When she shows up a second time at Thump’s (Ronnie Hall as the Ozarks drug kingpin in a stetson) house after being warned off the first time, Thump’s wife Merab (Dale Dickey in an Oscar-worthy performance) and her female kin brutally beat Ree before holding her in a garage. (Thankfully Granik resists the cheap chill and the audience is never made to fear for Ree’s chastity. A refreshing change from the way young women are often used in dramatic roles as objects of threatened and/or actualized sexual violence.) Ree lies bleeding and bruised on the garage floor and spits up a tooth, a symbolic enactment of a child’s loss. Teardrop rescues her, but she eventually must face her gift. Merab and the other women who were last seen kicking Ree’s fetal body show up at her house. They take her with a bag over her head to a marsh where Merab says in one of her many memorable lines, “You might know where you are, but if you do, you’d best forget it.” This is where Ree’s father was disposed of, they’ve come to collect proof of death for the bondsman. The group rows out into the swamp where they pull up his body. Ree can’t bear to operate the chainsaw, but she is made to hold her father’s hands as Merab cuts them from his corpse – a single hand is insufficient proof of death. The next day, Ree tells the sheriff that they were dropped on her doorstep in a bag.
Why don’t Merab and her kin cut the hands and drop them anonymously on Ree’s porch? It would certainly save them having to blindfold her. And why do they make Ree hold the hands as they’re severed when none of the other women seem like they’d mind much? The answer comes in a note in Hyde’s book, in which he points out that in German the word gift means “poison.” The etymology of the German gift comes from the double meaning of the Greek dosis, which means giving, but also has a medical use that we recognize in its English form “dose.” Hyde minimizes the importance of this connection, but it is an important way to think about liminal gifts. If someone were to threaten to give me a “dose of his own medicine,” it would be a little different than someone simply threatening to beat me. The word “dose” implies transformation, the change that comes with the administration of a correct amount of medicine. Given the closeness of these two concepts, I don’t see why liminal gifts would necessarily be enjoyable or positive. A father’s dismembered corpse hardly compares to a post-graduation trip to Prague, but it marks a new phase in Ree’s life. It is by clutching the bones as they’re sawn from her father’s body that Ree experiences his death and her own becoming-adult. This process is completed when she tells the sheriff the next day that she found them at her door. She knows what to know when.
I don’t see Winter’s Bone as either bleak or hopeful, although I’ve read it described as both. More than either, I see it as a subversive film. By taking a process – acceptance of the liminal gift/gift – that has become nearly anti-American and setting it in the purely American scene of the Ozarks, Granik’s plot reaches beyond itself. If liminal gifts are given on the individual level, they occur on the social and national level as well. We can think of God’s flood (not the ark) in the Old Testament as a kind of national dose, which marks the transition to His covenant with the Israelites. The global economic and housing crisis that marked the end of liberalism, especially in America, is this kind of gift; one we’ve found ourselves unable to accept.
When the collapse of the American housing bubble set off a chain reaction that would bring the world economy to its knees and strike a fatal blow to doctrines of state economic non-interference across the West, we had a chance as a nation to recognize the crisis as a transformational event. Notably, some individuals did. Judge Richard Posner, a conservative legal/economic scholar who once went so far as to advocate a baby-market rather than non-profit adoption, wrote a book in the wake of the crisis called A Failure of Capitalism. Here Posner reverses his free-market orthodoxy and attacks the myth of self-regulating markets and other tenets of mainstream economics. Although far from revolutionary, Posner’s turn points to the possibility of seeing the liminal gift within crisis and accepting it. Unfortunately, isolated examples like Posner have the air of wolves discussing the merits of vegetarianism right after dinner.
Instead of gripping the bones of a dead financial system, America has strung it up and forced it to dance like a morbid marionette. The free market system “survives” with the reanimating pumps of public funds, as what has appropriately been called “zombie liberalism.” The Turbulence Collective writes in the introduction to their fifth issue,
“Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. If no new middle ground is able to cohere sufficiently to replace it, this situation could last a while… all the major crises – economic, climate, food, energy – will remain unresolved; stagnation and long-term drift will set in (recall that the crisis of Fordism took longer than an entire decade, the 1970s, to be resolved). Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. A zombie can only act habitually, continuing to operate even as it decomposes. Isn’t this where we find ourselves today, in the world of zombie-liberalism? The body of neoliberalism staggers on, but without direction or teleology.”
We find ourself stuck stumbling on one side of the line, unable to walk the “passage away from what is dying” along which the threshold gift guides the receiver. Ree will find her father even if it would be less painful not to, – is it totally coincidental that the alternative is eviction from her house, an alternative many Americans have and continue to experience as a result of the crisis? – and it is this determination to grip the bones that makes the film subversive. Odds are Winter’s Bone won’t be breaking any box-office records, but America and Americans have a lot to learn from this timely film. I hope we accept it as the gift it is, even if it hurts.