The Academy Awards will be held on Sunday night, and one of the contenders for Best Picture is a little out of the ordinary when it comes to the Oscar circuit. Winter’s Bone, an independent film that won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is about poverty, patriarchy, and illegal meth labs in the Ozark Mountains. The film’s protagonist, Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl, is only barely able to make ends meet while caring for her mentally unstable mother and two younger siblings. Ree has taken over as head of the house ever since Jessup, her father and one of the best meth-cookers in the county, disappeared soon after being released from jail on bail. Jessup’s sudden absences are not unprecedented, but this time he’s left behind a serious problem: the family’s house served as collateral for his bail and now that he’s gone, the powers of the law are ready to collect. To prevent her family from being evicted from their home, Ree sets off to find her father.
Ree’s hunt takes her and the movie’s viewers deep into the southern Missouri countryside, into a society that operates by its own rules. Everyone is distantly related but no one much likes one another, and they like questions, especially from women, even less. (“Don’t you have any men-folk to do this?” Ree is asked at one point.) Most of the people in Ree’s town survive by cooking meth, and their main concern is silence: when her snooping threatens to disrupt their livelihoods, they turn mean. It’s made clear to Ree from the start that asking too many questions about her father’s absence could prove fatal for her. It also becomes increasingly clear that Jessup’s disappearance is probably permanent. Ree presses on anyway because she needs her father, dead or alive, so that she can either return him to jail or prove that circumstances prevented him from returning voluntarily.
The movie’s portrayal of Ree’s journey, and the people with whom she interacts, is unique for a couple of reasons. First, against all odds, it manages to humanize its subjects. The characters in Winter’s Bone are not people who most viewers would find instantly relatable. They are taciturn, mean, and far too ready to turn knives, guns, and axes against one another. Men beat their wives and cousins shoot each other. The movie, though, effectively portrays the prevailing value system as a necessity for survival in a ruined economy and a dangerous society. I’m sure, for example, that Ree would support the NRA’s stance on gun ownership, reasoning that she needs a Glock to take down a deer for dinner. Winter’s Bone’s achievement—bridging a gap in experience to emphasize a common humanity—is no small thing in a country with a demographic diversity and poisonous political climate that make it all too easy to label people with different values as fascists, communists, hicks or criminals.
The second remarkable aspect of the movie is its protagonist, Ree. She is a deeply brave person, but her bravery—unlike the flashy heroics of, say, Jason Bourne—is accessible and thus understandable. The movie makes it clear that Ree is able to face incredible danger without giving way to internal doubts because she knows what failure would mean for her and her family. Throughout the movie, Ree is solidly in touch with her motivations: she wants to save her house and land in order to support her family. Most movie characters are not this cognizant of why they do what they do, partly because most of them live more complex lives: they have jobs, hobbies, networks of friends, and connections in different parts of the country. Ree, on the other hand, has her family and a couple of loyal friends. It’s not that she lacks larger aspirations—she entertains thoughts of joining the Army as a way out of the Ozarks—but she remains deeply aware of what it would mean to take such a step. Her family might survive, but Ree would lose the sense of self-identity and certainty that they give her. As she says to her young siblings in the film’s last line: “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.”
Through its portrait of Ree, a decent person navigating through a hostile world, Winter’s Bone becomes more than a compelling look at society in rural southern Missouri. It reflects the more universal human experience of living a life which is not always easy, clear, or stable. This type of portrait is especially resonant in America circa 2011, an era defined by economic and social uncertainty. Here, life offers no easy answers and no definite rewards, and, for many people, “getting by” each day means struggle, anxiety, and only an occasional glimpse of happiness to spur them on. Americans are traditionally optimistic. We believe—and our political leaders constantly remind us of this “fact”—that we can achieve anything. But human beings have limits, and daily life is full of ambiguities and fears which most of today’s cinematic fare don’t acknowledge. Ree’s odyssey admits hardships while admiring human perseverance, and its cautious hopefulness and unblinking realism make it deeply resonant in hard times.