This contemporary noir set in the bleak winter of the Ozarks is exactly the movie I didn't know I had been waiting for forever. Really though, Winter's Bone borrows very little from traditional noirs. I wouldn't necessarily call it a noir, but maybe a mythical, feminist, coming of age fable about duty and independence... with a noir bouquet. Morally ambiguous characters speak in hard-boiled cadences while treading the thin moral ground between mere survival and criminal activity. Though there are criminals, there are no true villains, just a basic moral code to be negotiated based on individual requirement. Everyone in this small community is just trying to get by through various methods, the most noticeable of which is meth production.
One of the first things you might notice about the insular world in which Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives, is that there are very few men in it, but their presence casts a deep shadow over the women. The most important male in the plot is talked about, but never witnessed. Moreover, his importance to the story lies in the fact that he has abandoned his family, putting up their home as his bond. Jessup Dolly's untimely disappearance is the catalyst that sets his daughter's journey in motion. When Ree goes looking for her father, the town's elusive patriarch lies at the end of her path, but she must go through countless gatekeepers to find him, all of them gruff, sturdy women who will stop at almost nothing to prevent her from upsetting the natural order.
As represented in Winter's Bone, the Ozarks is a place at once totally isolated from the rest of America, while also capturing the essence of the desperate, American spirit. Ree and her family are self-reliant out of necessity; the bleakness of their situation obliterates any notion of transcendentalist conceit. Because there is no money for food, they hunt rabbits and squirrels. They await aid from the neighbors, although they never ask for it. Ree lives by a code, which is based upon pride and fairness, in equal parts. When her brother sees that the neighbors are cutting up a large piece of meat, he wonders if they should ask for some. Sternly, Ree tells him, "never ask for what ought to be offered."
You will be hard-pressed to find a single frame in the film that does not contain some kind of animal imagery. Throughout the movie, Granik creates an animal motif. From deer on t-shirts, to plastic horses on trampolines, to skinned carcasses adorning the corners of the frame, animals are everywhere. Here, more than anywhere else, people are reduced to animal instincts. In this town, living isn't merely living, it is surviving. The elusive moral code that reigns in the town is what keeps its residents in touch with their humanity. But the line between animalistic and human tendencies is often thread-bare, particularly as Ree's own motives begin to threaten the stasis of the town.
More than simply acting as a metaphor for survival instincts, the animal motif makes the constrictions of poverty visible. Below is a beautiful visual echo between the penned cows and the people in the stands. In both images, the subjects are framed behind a bar, all individuality lost in a sea of like objects.
As with many classic noirs (ie. Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep) some of the finer points of the plot became a little bit muddled. But, being a noir, the plot is of secondary importance. The emotional motivations were clear enough, which is all I really care about. Icy and isolated, the characters waft through an environment that has embedded its roughness into their features. Even stoney-faced Ree bears the imprint of her surroundings, if only in her mannerisms. She is fair, sensible, and strong-- a girl forced to grow up too quickly. She is bold and laconic, almost occupying a more traditionally masculine role. There is something of the hard-boiled PI in Ree. She is a free agent who has motives that are outside of everyone around her. Arguably, it is this masculine edge that allows her to infiltrate the depths of the drug ring to get what she wants. That's not to say that she does not represent femininity. As a mother figure, she certainly does. By ingratiating herself as a provider, Ree convinces the women in her community to do what they need to do so that everyone can remain in stasis, toeing that moral line.
In the films darkest and most affecting scene (needless to say, some spoilers might be spilled, here), several female leaders of the meth ring agree to take Ree to her father's final resting place so that she can bring back evidence to prove his death. Basically, this means rowing Ree out into the middle of a lake, where she plunges her hands into the icy water to grab her father's corpse. Ree holds her father's dead hands while one of the women takes a saw to them, freeing them from his body for Ree to take home with her. If Ree's journey is a test of her mettle, she passes with flying colors, retreating from the fire back into the frying pan. Although she succeeds in keeping the house, Ree is still left alone to raise her younger siblings. But, she and her family have survived another bleak winter.