In this last election, Hillary Clinton supporters went out of its way to convince voters that rural poor white America doesn’t exist, and if it does, it’s their own fault. They failed to capitalize on their ‘white privilege’ and make something of themselves. Instead they choose to regress to their sexist and racist past and voted for Donald Trump instead. And if the consequence of voting for Trump results in them losing their medical subsidies, food stamp subsidies, or whatever little welfare the government gives them, it’s their fault too. They deserve to die, because they chose the arrogant ferret who told them what they wanted to hear over the arrogant neoliberal warmonger who looks down on them.
Winter’s Bone was released five years before Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, which talks about the exact demographic Winter’s Bone depicts.
It is set in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains (home state of President Bill Clinton), a rural, poor, decaying farming community where the main economy isn’t farming but meth cooking. They are the hill-billy version of Walter White from Breaking Bad. It stars a pre-Hunger Games fame Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old high school student who lives with her mother and younger brother and sister. Her mother is mentally ill and has been prescribed heavy doses of medications which don’t work. She is a zombie, rarely speaks and is incapable of fulfilling her parenting duties. Ree has become her caretaker, and the caretaker of her younger siblings. They are destitute, they’d be going hungry if their neighbor Sonya didn’t share her meat and vegetables with them. The small circle of kin and neighbors are aware of Ree’s plight and most try to help out in small ways by slipping her an odd $20 bill here and there. The only thing the Dolly family has of any value is their house and woods attached to it.
Ree Dolly gets a visit from the sheriff one morning asking if she’s seen her father Jessup Dolly recently. She says she hadn’t seen him in years. He is a well known meth cooker in the area and has been arrested and jailed multiple times. The sheriff proceeded to inform her that for his last arrest, he made bail by using their house as collateral and if he doesn’t show up for his court hearing in a few days, the bail bonds man will come and seize their home and they’ll will be homeless.
Ree begins a frantic search for her father, calling on all the people who might have seen him recently, starting with her father’s brother Uncle Teardrop. She was met with hostility from Teardrop Dolly and he grabbed her by the neck and told her to drop the whole thing and don’t go looking for her dad. She ignored that and then went on to all the other kin (it is implied in that small Ozark mountain community are all related to each other somehow). She even tracks down her dad’s former mistress, the mistress said she saw her dad a few weeks ago but he was with some shady people she’s never seen before and that was the last she heard of him. Every other person (other meth cookers she knows her dad associated with) all slammed the door in her face saying they can’t help, even when she is in this desperate situation. And she was warned repeatedly by very dangerous and powerful local people to ‘drop it’. Her uncle Teardrop finally told her that in his last arrest, Jessup Dolly was facing 10 years prison and he couldn’t face that, so he became a police informant, a snitch. And Teardrop was just trying to distance himself from his brother so that he doesn’t get killed. When Ree learned that her father became a police snitch she is almost certain he had been killed. And if she can provide proof to the police and the bail bond company that her father was dead and therefore cannot show up to court, she’d keep their house.
Despite repeated warnings to not go near the town’s main drug lord, Thump Milton to inquire about her father’s whereabouts, she didn’t heed that warning. Since he won’t open his door to her, she went and sought him out at a public place, at the cattle auction market to get his attention. This action forced the women (as per hilly-billy honor code, you don’t snitch and men don’t harm women) associated with Thump Milton to beat up Ree Dolly. A bunch of middle aged women dragged a 17 year old by her hair and beat her to a pulp. Then as they stood around to discuss what should happen to this wayward teen who can’t follow simple instructions (and the option of killing her was discussed). Ree, bloodied, swollen and bruised said, “you can help me, have you thought of that”? At this moment her uncle Teardrop showed up and ‘saved’ her by saying his niece will be his responsibility and she won’t talk.
The most heartbreaking scenes in the movie is not when she gets beaten to a pulp, or when her uncle gets violent with her, or when various members of the community instead of trying to help her stay in her home offer to take in one of her siblings and splitting up the family; or even the middle age men leering lecherously at her hoping to take advantage of her plight. The most heartbreaking scenes are when she begs her mother to help her to decide whether they should sell the valuable woods behind their property before the bail bond company take everything or should they try to fight the bail bond company? She tells her medicated catatonic mother “please help me, just this one time, please”. She is a child begging her mother to be a parent. The second heartbreaking scene is when the same women that beat Ree to a pulp decide to help and bring her to the body of her father. He is thrown in a shallow watery grave in the middle nowhere, in the middle of winter. The women brought a chainsaw with them with the purpose of cutting off the hands of Jessup Dolly to give to the police to run fingerprints, proving that he’s dead. They told Ree to do it, she couldn’t, so she held her father’s corpse so they can cut off his hands. After this gruesome task was done, Ree shed a tear. It was tears of loss of her father, who was a criminal and abandoned them but her father nonetheless (the audience was not informed what kind of father he was before he disappeared), the final reckoning that she is now truly alone, a young girl with her sick mother and two younger siblings, she has no more male protection. We are reminded in these two scenes that Ree is just a child herself. She desperately needs her parents but they are missing in action, and for whatever reasons are unable to step up to their responsibilities. The burden on her young shoulders is too much for a 17 year old to bear. She got their house back and even got back some much needed cash because an anonymous person used cash to put up a portion of her dad’s bond as the deed to their home was insufficient. So, for the time being, they will not be made homeless, and with their criminal father out of the way, life could go on. But the stark reality is, unless she puts her mother in an institution and moves out of the Ozarks with her younger siblings, in twenty years time, she will turn into the hardened middle aged women who beat her up. Her little brother could become a criminal like their father, her younger sister could be pregnant before she is out of her teens.
She, like them, will realize there are no real opportunities besides back breaking farm work and cooking meth. Eventually, out of survival, she will somehow get involved with meth cooking, even if she doesn’t become addicted herself. In a scene with her uncle Teardrop, he takes out a bag of white powdery substance and puts it up nose right in front of his young niece (drug use is a way of life, there’s no need to conceal it from young children), he asks her ‘have you developed a taste for this yet’? She said ‘no, not yet.’ He gave her a knowing look saying you will one day. It’s inevitable if you choose to stay in the Ozarks. The contrast of Jennifer Lawrence’s face with that of her co-stars couldn’t have been more different. Lawrence still had the cherubic youthful looks of a teenager, even if an overburdened one, there is still hope, sincerity and kindness in her eyes and heart. But one day, the deep lines of a life of hardship, bitterness, of being left behind by everyone else around them will show on her face, like all the others.
This small Ozark mountain community is not unique. There are hollowed out communities like this in America everywhere, known as sacrifice zones. These are the people that liberals and neoliberals wrote off en mass as a surplus of useless people, the sooner they disappear the better it is for everyone. These are white working folks, they had their chance to make it, but they blew it, so now they need to go away. They are unwanted, unneeded, unnecessary. This little movie staring the future A-list superstar Jennifer Lawrence drew almost no attention from the public, though she was nominated for an Oscar for the role and this movie paved her way to her Hunger Games stardom (another movie about a teenager sacrificing herself for her younger sibling).
The story, the script, the excellent cast of characters in this small, dreary film about rural poverty and crime in the Ozark Mountains is more contemporary of the times than any big budget movie from Hollywood can offer.