Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Southern Gothic: Winter's Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone takes place in the Ozarks, in a part of the country that's apparently entirely consumed and thinly supported by the business of meth production. Protagonist Ree Dolly discovers that her father put up her house as bail bond, and if he doesn't return for his court date, the family will lose the house. She goes out to find this absent father, the truant Jessup, approaching her neighbors, and then her best friend, and then his brother Teardrop; everywhere she goes, she meets a reticence born of desperation and fear of reprisal. In this social environment, everybody has their own problems... their self-defensiveness, their resistance to getting involved in anyone else's troubles -- a sort of enforced, frozen-over apathy -- is palpable.  This is partly because in this part of the world, each person's personal problems are mountainous, unrelenting, and insurmountable, and taking responsibility for someone else's struggles?  Practically suicide.

It doesn't take us long to realize just how alone Ree Dolly is.  She may have her little siblings and her infirm mother to keep her company, but she has nobody to depend on except herself, and you can see it in her taciturn manner: she has learned the stoicism required to survive in an economy of strict scarcity. Yet, despite her solitude, Ree is an operator. Aside from survival techniques, she also knows the rules of the community, the boundaries that she's expected to respect, the laws of loyalty, the hierarchies she's supposed to recognize.

Winter's Bone is, essentially, the story of Ree deciding to break these rules for the sake of her family's survival.

Like Sling Blade, this is a story of a member of a community who lingers on the margins.  Ree uses her insider understanding to accomplish an outsider's goal: to unearth something that's been buried by the community, so that she can pacify the seige of the law before they destroy her life.  Each time she meets a barrier, Ree transgresses it -- carefully, gently, but enough that she upsets the balance.  Her refusal to leave Thump Milton's farm after the first warning from Merab is her first serious transgression, and she follows this up with more trespasses. At every step of the way, she finds obstruction, and in the face of each obstruction, she breaks a rule or two... often her own.

So like Karl from Sling Blade, Ree is an insider with an outsider's agenda, alone amongst her own kin.  However, there the similarities end. The laws in Karl's life are explicit, products of honesty and transparency.  He lives by the code of the bible and by the ethos of Dr. Jerry Woolridge, and when he has a moral intuition, he states it plainly. In the Ozarks, on the other hand, the rules are opaque and absolute, tacit but strictly enforced at every step of the way.  They aren't a transcendent code of conduct; rather, they're the products of a rigid power structure and a deeply-embedded community.

This opacity, this inescapable power structure, makes Winter's Bone less of a folk tale and more of a neo-noir, a crime story where bare trees and empty meth labs stand in for city streets. Ree is navigating a labyrinth of motivations, balancing the power claims of many characters, and she only succeeds by playing them against each other.  If she hadn't ignited some latent passion in Teardrop, she might never have attracted the sympathy of the Milton sisters.  If she hadn't stirred up the hostility between Sheriff Baskin and the community, she might have been forever ignored, left to starve with her brother and sister.

Aside from an arguably happy ending (happy, at least, in that the protagonist's family doesn't freeze and starve), there is very little redemption along the way in Winter's Bone.  Hearts don't seem to soften, so much as they seem to temporarily yield to danger and leverage. Teardrop is notably elevated by the plot, going from a negligent addict to a protector and avenger, "showing his salt," as it were.  But the meth-ridden mountain community remains brutal and impoverished, and Ree's mother never emerges from her torpor.

And especially, there's the fact that we never learn the details of Jessup's death: who killed him, what enemies he made, what his final months were like.  Whether he tried to protect himself, whether he appealed to his brother or his mistress, whether he ever really trusted the Sheriff.  Whether he had any thought of his family's safety. The story seems to intentionally turn away from this death, allowing us, the audience, to remain curious and unfulfilled, just as Ree must be as she tries to continue her life.  Her father is dead. She knows next to nothing.

And so, two Southern Gothic stories, each with a patriarchal figurehead who oversteps his bounds, who misuses his insider status and pays the ultimate price. In a sense, Jessup is Doyle, and in Winter's Bone, Karl's job has already been carried out by some unknown assailant. And each film, in its climactic moment, turns away from the most brutal deed and looks sternly at its context, its causes and its aftermath.  Because in this world, there is no use in being suddenly shocked and disturbed by a murder, whether just or unjust.  Shock distracts from survival, and in the face of death, life keeps moving along.

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