Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Ree Dolly who lives in the Ozark Mountain region of southern Missouri. Ree’s father, a methamphetamine manufacturer, has signed away the family’s land for his bail bond and then disappeared, leaving her to take care of her incapacitated mother and two younger siblings. To keep from losing the land, Ree must find him before his court date, but she finds herself opposed by her own extended family as her investigation touches on closely guarded secrets.
The story is a sharp observation of what might be called rural decay. Most obviously, it could be taken as a cautionary tale about how the drug trade ruins families and communities. The film wisely does not foreclose this reading, since it is true as far as it goes. Winter’s Bone goes deeper, however, avoiding a simplistic “blame the drugs” message and touching on a number of related issues that ought to be considered.
The 2007 documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope described a community that was similar in many ways—Compton, California during the height of the “crack epidemic.” Hysteria over that particular form of cocaine led to the enactment of notoriously harsh laws, some of which are only now beginning to be reformed. The war against crack had predictably harsh consequences for black communities like Compton, where lifelong residents were driven away. Their properties were quickly snapped up and later resold as a new, gentrified community emerged. Today, many people whose families lived there for generations can scarcely dream of affording a house in Compton.
Too often scenarios like this are dismissed as symptoms of a characteristically African-American problem. As the story goes, young black men without good role models are drawn into the drug trade by the lure of easy money. Others condone their behavior or at least turn a blind eye. Without family values and a strong work ethic, a sense of entitlement prevails, and the community pays the price as a result. We can hope that the subculture will change for the better, but ultimately there’s nothing we can do since everyone is responsible for their own actions and decisions. Case closed.
This has long been the mainstream attitude toward black communities plagued by unemployment. Winter’s Bone presents us with a white community in very much the same circumstances responding in very much the same way. Other than the drug business, few opportunities exist. The best option is the military, and indeed the film portrays the public school as little more than an intake facility for the Army. But parents (especially single parents), would-be entrepreneurs, those with an independent bent, or anyone who wants to stay close to home for whatever reason may well find that choice unworkable.
As in Compton, there is a great deal of potential value in the land that the families own. Here the value is not in location but in timber. And as always, wealthy interests are ready and waiting to buy up the property forfeited by the ne’er-do-wells. As Ree’s uncle warns her, they’ll cut down a hundred years’ growth in a matter of weeks when her father misses his court date. Best to have it done right away if she wants a share in it.
The film shows a culture in which family loyalty has almost completely died and been replaced by a gangster code of conduct. It's a transformation far too deep and too frightening to have been accomplished by home-cooked stimulants alone. In urban black communities it was accomplished by powerful institutions, both private and public, that disregarded human values and wrote off unemployment, crime, and poverty as externalities of business. In Winter's Bone, we see the same disregard at work in a different setting. We're left with no excuse to continue believing it's someone else's problem.