Moving Pictures
Jun 11, 2024, 06:26AM

Winter’s Bone Is a Mafia Film From the Perspective of Women

Men want women to shut up and disappear.

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“Ain’t you got no men who could do this?” the older, hardened Ozark crime matriarch Merab (Dale Dickey) asks 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in Debra Granik’s 2010 Winter’s Bone. Ree replies, “No, ma’am, I don’t,”—a concise summary of the film’s central theme.

Many of the women-directed Best Picture Oscar nominees I’ve looked at struggle in one way or another with male influence; they muse on and try to figure out how women can get access to art and capital in a man’s world and in a man’s industry. Lost in Translation, An Education, Children of a Lesser God and The Hurt Locker all confront, utilize, and/or critique male genres and mentors, thinking through the ways they are alternately, or simultaneously, empowering and stifling. Winter’s Bone is easily the bleakest approach to these issues so far. Granik and Lawrence paint a gray world in which the patriarchy is indifferent at best and actively hostile at worst to women’s aspirations and stories.

The movie’s plot is about the man who isn’t there; Ree’s father, Jessup, has disappeared ahead of his court date for cooking meth. He’s bonded out the house, which means that if he doesn’t show up, Ree, her mentally-ill mother Connie, 12-year-old brother Sonny, and six-year-old sister Ashley will be homeless and consequently impoverished. Ree’s determined to find her father, but she’s stymied at every step by his male friends and family, who are also his criminal associates. Jessup’s brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), comes up to the edge of striking her. Others threaten her life.

Ree’s women friends, and the wives or girlfriends of Jessup’s associates are somewhat more helpful—but also potentially more dangerous. It’s Merab who beats Ree when she’s too persistent; she takes the responsibility because she knows if a man hit Ree, Teardrop would feel honor-bound to start a blood feud. Under patriarchy, sisterhood is tenuous, half-disavowed, secret, and often deployed to help the patriarchs. The women Ree asks for help are almost uniformly angry or uncomfortable, because they know that helping puts them and their families at risk too.

The dynamics of paranoia and threat here are familiar, albeit in a distorted form. Granik’s film is in part a response or reimagining of cinema mob film staples like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Those classics supposedly critique toxic masculinity. But they’re also fascinated by its allure and violence, which is why they center violent, charismatic, powerful men. Winter’s Bone in contrast is a mob film told from the perspective not of the male mobsters, but of their families, wives, and children.

The supposedly honorable male anti-heroes, Granik shows, make a thin pretense of protecting and providing. But the truth is that their codes of violence, silence, and patriarchal dick-swinging leave their dependents isolated and powerless. Ree’s determined and brave, and impressively resourceful for a 17-year-old. She’s also painfully vulnerable, not because her dad is absent, but because the patriarchy crime syndicate he’s a part of permeates all her relationships and every aspect of her life.

The two most powerful scenes in the film aren’t moments of violence or even suspense. They’re sequences in which Ree looks for help to those who are supposed to protect her, and is repudiated. In the first, she begs her mother to aid her “just once” as the 17-year-old tries to decide how to handle the house being sold out from under them. Her mother, though, can’t respond, and barely even looks at her. The second is when Ree is led by Merab to her father’s drowned body; she has to cut off his arms to prove he’s dead. The film’s quest for a man who can do anything at all for Ree ends with a confirmation of absence. All Jessup can offer his daughter is his own death, and empty hands.

In both scenes, when Ree confronts the absence of her parents, she’s horrified and traumatized. But she doesn’t scream or say much. Her parents’ silence is also her silence. Her helplessness is the fact that no one can hear her, and no one wants her to speak.

Hollywood’s not a criminal patriarchal crime syndicate. Or is it? Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo revelations suggest, at least, that young actresses in the industry often have experiences of abuse and voicelessness that Ree might recognize. Friendly male mentors, in Winter’s Bone, and in Hollywood, are thin on the ground, which in patriarchy leaves women with few good options. That makes it all the more remarkable, and precious, when people like Ree, Granik and Lawrence survive, and even occasionally triumph.


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