One of the most compelling scenes in Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone depicts the film’s protagonist, Ree Dolly, being dragged away into the night by a group of brutal women. Her relentless journey to find her missing father has brought her through the cold hills of her small town and into the back yard of rusted cars and chicken coops. Methamphetamine has stolen away almost everything from the rural community of southern Missouri. It has decimated the men in the town, and turned family against family. Winter’s Bone pits the destructive force of drug addiction against the resiliency of the human spirit.
Ree struggles and fights to tear herself away from the tangle of arms and hands that engulf her. While being punched and slapped, the women force her into a haunting gray barn on a bleak winter evening. Her screams echo into the cold night. A concussion of thunder rumbles across the sky, low and faint. A glowing florescent light hanging overhead and rusty metal chains hanging on the wall project a feeling of claustrophobia and doom.
As Ree gains consciousness she finds herself surrounded by a sea of blurry faces. Once again the feeling of claustrophobia sets in. The dour faces of the townsfolk are marked by creases and old lines. Their dead eyes peer down at the young woman with a hostile uncertainty. Their lost battle with drug addiction and the poverty they have endured has stolen almost everything away from them. Ree has found herself on the receiving end of their brutality. She stares straight ahead and is told by the film’s most paradoxical character Merab, “You was warned. You was warned nice and you wouldn’t listen. Why didn’t you listen?” Ree spits out a broken tooth as an answer and stares thoughtfully down at her hand. She is now surrounded not only by women but by local men in flannel shirts, jeans, and worn baseball caps. Ree looks up and as the light hits her face she is met with a stroke of a hand to her hair. In a callous attempt for an answer, one of the younger women named Megan asks Ree in a voice filled with pity and sarcasm,
“What are we ever gonna do with you baby girl?” Ree doesn’t even balk. She replies with a breathtaking nonchalance.
“Kill me I guess… or help me.” she says. Only a truly resilient person could respond with such an unflinching reply. As she slouches on the dusty floor the sound of a car door opening catches the attention of some of the men and they take a step back. A large, aged man with a penchant for western clothes appears through the archway of the door. The upper half of his body is darkened by the shadows in the barn but his hard face and white beard become visible once he steps into the light. His presence is noted by everyone in the room and the men take a further step back. Thump Milton walks to where Ree is sitting and stares down at her. She peers up at him with an alarmed expression and makes an effort to back further up against the haystacks but there is no escape. This is not the first time they have seen one another. Earlier in the day, Ree had gone looking for him at a cattle auction in town. His reputation for being elusive and formidable could not keep her away. Ree was hoping to talk to Thump about the disappearance of her father Jessup. She spotted Thump in the bleachers and called out to him. He got up briskly and walked away, causing Ree to follow him through a maze of steel fences and howling sows. Her chase led her to Thump’s barn where she found herself overcome by a vicious group of women who spotted Ree and became truculent and violent with her.
Thump stands in front of Ree, his towering body taking up much of the frame. His colossal cowboy hat casts a shadow across his face, adding to his threatening demeanor. Thump bends over to get a closer look at the damage that has been done to Ree’s face. He reaches out and with a large hand places his fingers around her lower jaw, examining her bloody face. Ree does not protest this gesture or try to get away. She looks up at him with a steely gaze. A deep gash above her lip which appears to be very painful does not make her wince. With a face that looks as though it could have been carved out of the side of a mountain and a voice to match, he says,
“You got something to say child, you best say it now.” The small crowd looks on with wan expressions. Ree replies confidently,
“I got two kids that can’t feed themselves yet. My mom’s sick and she’s always gonna be sick. Pretty soon the law’s gonna come taking our house and throwing us out to live like dogs.” A close up shot reveals Thump as he listens and considers. She goes on to tell him that if her missing father has done wrong he has paid the price for his mistakes. He says nothing as he meets her gaze through the florescent light. Thump lumbers away in a medium shot, powerfully dominating the frame. Their conversation represents the struggle between destructive addiction and the human spirit.
A dog barking in the near distance signals the arrival of a vehicle. Merab, looking worried and weathered, gazes around the room at her comrades. The consensus seems to be that Ree’s uncle Teardrop has arrived searching for his niece. One of the men replies while walking away from the small crowd,
“I ain’t gonna be here naked with that motherfucker coming.” He is unarmed and chooses to flee. He walks away and everyone standing in the barn exchange alarmed glances. In a powerful frame hinged in uncertainty, an old garage door opens swiftly and a slender man with a switching left hand enters. The door goes all the way up revealing Teardrop’s deadpan stare. Teardrop does not waste any time asking for the whereabouts of Ree. He makes his way into the barn and is met by two reluctant men who make a weak effort to block his path. Teardrop glances around the dimly lit room and catches a glimpse of his injured niece. He asks the men if they hit her. Merab chimes in again with her gravely voice,
“He never. No man here touched that crazy girl. I put the hurt on her. Me and my sisters, they was here too.” The camera illuminates the uncertain expressions of the women in the room. Ree is seen sitting on the floor, her arms wrapped around her knees. The sound of Thump’s heavy boots approaching causes Ree to turn her head in his direction as he lumbers forward to meet Teardrop. The lighting in the barn is dim where the two men stand to face each other. The crowd looks on in silence. Teardrop regards Thump with the same stony expression as the others. He asserts in a self-assured voice,
“What Jessup done was against our ways, he knew it, I know it. I ain’t raised no stink at all about whatever became of him. She ain’t my brother.” The camera closes in on the startled faces in the room. Ree looks around the room, her hands folded over her knees. Teardrop continues, “She’s about the closest family I got left so I’ll be collecting her now, carrying her outta here to home. That suit you Thump?” Thump pauses before explaining to Teardrop very firmly that if Ree is to cause any kind of trouble it will fall on her uncle. Teardrop accepts his fate and approves of the transaction. Thump turns to the small crowd and says, “You boys give her a hand and put her in the truck.” A few of the bedraggled men lift her off of the floor and she lets out a groan of pain. She cannot stand on her own due to her bodily injuries and has to be propped up and helped out of the barn. The men place her gently into Teardrop’s Chevy and he starts the truck up with a rumble and they drive off into the night.
Blackness has swallowed the night as Ree and Teardrop make their way down a dark country road, away from the barn and her perpetrators. It is cold and silent. Although Ree has been saved by her uncle, her safety is still elusive. Her relationship with Teardrop is fractured, and she is still unsure of his motives. Just days before he had held out a bag of methamphetamine in her face and offered it to her. With the bag just inches from her face, she held her head back and refused to take it. The act was utterly brave. Ree looks sad as she sits in her uncle’s truck. Faint light from dashboard of the pickup illuminates their pensive faces. A deer antler hangs from a rear view mirror. Teardrop pulls his truck off to the side of the road and produces what looks to be a rag. He holds it between his knees and tears it up into smaller pieces. A profile shot reveals Ree’s scratched face. Teardrop says,
“Chomp down on that ’till the blood lets up.” In a gesture of concern, he hands her the handkerchief to put in her mouth. She bites down on it and keeps in in her mouth. Little dialogue ensues and when it does Teardrop tells Ree softly,
“Even if you find out, you can’t ever let me know who killed him.” He goes on to tell her that her father could not face a ten year prison term and had turned information over to the police that would eventually come back to haunt him. “You and me now.” Teardrop says as he turns his face towards his niece, a ribbon of cigarette smoke floats in the darkness. She regards the statement with silence, removing the cloth from her mouth. Her swollen and bruised face makes it difficult to talk even if she wanted to. In an unexpected gesture, she reaches over and squeezes her uncle’s shoulder. Ree has seen a shift in her uncle’s behavior, and although there has not been a sea change, Teardrop has shown her his humility. Her empathy for him is evident in her touching him, something she has not done at all throughout the film. His conversation with her is an honest one and he lets her know in his own way that he will be looking after her from that point on. A bridge has been built between them, and although it is not a secure one, it will help mend the damage that has been done to both of them. Ree looks over to her uncle and the hard expression she has carried throughout the film softens. Teardrop starts up the truck and they drive away to Ree’s humble cabin in the woods. Getting on with practical things like Ree taking the handkerchief to her bloody mouth shows the resilient strength her and her uncle exhibit just to survive the present moment.
In the final scenes of the film, Teardrop decides to visit the small cabin to check on his nieces and nephew. He approaches while Ree and her younger sister Ashlee Dawn take fresh laundry down from a clothing line. Their mother Connie, who is severely depressed and mute, sits and folds laundry. She sees Teardrop and a slight smile appears on her face. A gentle breeze lifts a blanket revealing Ashlee Dawn’s smiling face, toothless in its charm. The middle child named Sonny rolls back and forth on his skateboard in the front yard. Their uncle walks across the yard, holding a small, red flannel bundle in his left hand. He calls for Sonny to come closer. The family regards him with curiosity and move closer to him as he nears. Teardrop says hello to little Ashlee Dawn and Sonny walks over to see what is inside the cloth. They gather around their uncle as he bends down to reveal two baby chicks. Sonny and Ashlee carefully remove the chicks from Teardrop’s hands and gently hold them close to their chests. The children collectively thank their uncle and move towards their front porch to sit. Ree stands close to the clothesline and smiles at her uncle. The consequences of methamphetamine addiction has scarred Ree, her family, and their community. Her tenacity and resilient spirit enabled her to survive the harrowing search for her father with dignity intact. The end of Ree’s journey signifies a new beginning for her and her family.