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Movie Review

There's a line we draw between childhood and adulthood—one that, in America, we set at age 18. On one side of the line, we're children—unable to vote or (without permission) marry or go to war. On the other, we're adults, presumed to be ready for most of life's challenges and responsibilities.

It's kinda crazy, when you think about it. We're not magically granted new wisdom on our birthday. No one gives us a special adulthood guidebook to read. Psychologists say that many of us don't start thinking like adults until our mid-20s, and some of us wait longer than that.

And then there are those who are forced to become adults long before they turn 18.

Ree Dolly is 17 now. But she grew up years ago. She doesn't daydream in school; she daydreams about school. Sometimes she even sneaks into one located in her rural Ozark Mountain community, and she watches students take care of dolls in a childrearing class and march through ROTC training drills. As she watches, you see the longing in her eyes.

Ree's mother is nearly catatonic. Her father, a low-level meth cook, is long gone. Like it or not, she's the head of the Dolly household, and her two younger siblings, 12-year-old Sonny and 6-year-old Ashlee, depend on her for everything.

It's a hard life, but Ree's pushing through it, bit by bit … until the local sheriff comes to call. Your daddy's disappeared, he tells her, and he used this house as collateral to make bail. He's due in court in a few days, and if he doesn't show, you lose the house.

"I'll find him," Ree says.

We've been looking, and—

"I said I'll find him," she snaps. And you get the sense that she'll knock on every door, ask every question, violate every secret to do so. Her father may be gone, but Ree's not going to let him take the family house with him.

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Positive Elements

The Ozarks in Winter's Bone make for a strange, sequestered land, It's a bleak landscape filled with weathered, clench-jawed residents—folks whose families have lived and loved and fought in these parts for decades upon decades. It's the sort of place where any real obvious warmth would be run out of the county … or subjected to a swift mercy killing.

Yet less obtrusive traces of warmth and goodwill survive. An Army recruiter gives Ree some sound advice in a kind and gentle fashion. He tells her that ultimately it might be a bigger challenge and require more backbone to stay at home and work through her problems than to join up for just the signing bonus. He's right. Ree and her family are currently getting by on small acts of kindness: Their neighbor, Sonya, takes in the Dollys' slowly starving horse. She brings over a slab of venison so Ree and the kids can make themselves something to eat. Gail, one of Ree's friends, uses her husband's truck to drive Ree around and, when Ree is beaten horribly, Gail sticks around to help care for her and the kids. Even the folks who mostly hate Ree and the rest of the Dollys give her hot drinks and bundle her up to protect her from the cold. Everyone in this scattered community shares a common ancestry, and even those who feel threatened by Ree can't completely turn their backs on her.

Sometimes we even see acts of real heroism: Teardrop, Ree's uncle, risks his life to rescue her from some pretty rough characters, then risks it again to help her find some answers. "She does wrong, you can put it on me," he says, in what may be 2010's single most gallant, self-sacrificial movie line.

But it's still Ree's own indomitable character that really stands out. If there's one thing even these Ozark villains respect, it's courage—and she has stables of the stuff: Not just the sort of courage to knock on doors and ask questions that, in Teardrop's words, might get her "et by hogs, or wishing you was." It's the courage to wake up each morning and give Sonny and Ashlee the best home she can—training them for the rough future that seems to lay ahead. It's the courage to care for her mother. It's the courage to live and make the world, if not better, at least a more secure place for those around her.

[Spoiler Warning] Even in the end, when it looks as though things are going to be all right and she might actually start thinking about what she'd like to do for a change, she never forsakes the duties she's been saddled with, no matter how unfair they might seem to her—or us. "I'd be lost without the weight of you on my back," she tells her anxious younger siblings. "I ain't goin' anywhere."

Spiritual Content

Two references to Christian symbols that Ree makes while teaching Sonny and Ashlee how to respect and shoot firearms may imply that the family has some experience with spiritual things: She tells them to "kneel down like you're prayin.'" Then she says, "See that cross? That's called the cross-hairs."

Sexual Content

Half joking, a man tells a visiting Ree that she obviously couldn't keep him out of her dreams. Ree meets one of her father's old lovers who says she rekindled her relationship with him a few weeks prior—for a day or two. "Then he was gone again," she says.

The concept of sexual equality hasn't reached the Ozarks of Winter's Bone. Men rule here, sitting on their couches like pauper kings, making grave and violent pronouncements while their women answer doors, deliver messages and try to get along as best they can. Women have power here—a great deal of it—but they wield it through subterfuge, not direct interplay.

Violent Content

Women in Ree's world also seem to live with the constant threat of physical abuse. Twice we see Ree intimidated by means of physical force: Teardrop grabs and pulls her hair; another man roughly jostles her while making her get into his truck. Teardrop tells his wife, "I said shut up once … with my mouth," indicating that the next time he'll let his fists do the talking.

Ree is severely beaten at one point—by other women. One throws hot coffee in her face, and they punch, kick (she tries to bite one of them back) and drag her to a barn. Several hours later, Ree's still there, half conscious, her face bloodied and swollen. When Teardrop comes to "collect" her, he asks whether one of the men hit her. He's emphatically told, by one of the women, that she and her sisters are the ones who "put the hurt on her"—as if that made it OK. Once safely home, Ree spits blood into a sink as she's getting cleaned up.

It's worth noting that when the Army recruiter asks what happened to her, Ree says she fell off a bike.

Teardrop takes an ax to someone's windshield. A tense standoff develops between Teardrop and a police officer, both of whom are holding weapons. Ree brandishes a shotgun when unwelcome visitors show up at her door. Sonny's threatened with a beating when he sticks up for Ree.

In murky light we don't quite see women cutting the hands off a dead body with a chain saw. We do briefly see a severed hand.

Ree and Sonny shoot, skin and dress squirrels.

Crude or Profane Language

Close to 10 f-words and a dozen s-words. Frequent milder profanity includes "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑." God's name is misused three or four times, combined once with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Drugs make the Ozarks go round, according to Winter's Bone. Ree resists accepting anything harder than marijuana (and we don't even see her smoking that), but she seems like something of an exception. When she mentions someone cooking crank, another girl says, "They all do now. You don't even need to say it out loud." And with some pride, Ree says of her father and his drug "lab," "He's known for knowing what he's doing."

Teardrop snorts cocaine in front of Ree at least twice, asking her if she's developed a taste for the stuff yet. Another man asks Ree if she wants to do "a line" or "blow some smoke." A woman gives her a "doobie" for the walk home.

Teardrop and others smoke cigarettes. Ree takes painkillers after she's beaten.

Other Negative Elements

Pride is a huge part of Ree's culture, and residents take particular pride in one thing: keeping secrets … from the law. Folks refuse to talk in part because, if they did, their lives would be in danger, and one character does indeed wind up dead after talking to the police.

But there's more to it than that. Ree doesn't keep her mouth shut just because it's safer to. She keeps quiet because, in her mixed-up world, she's been taught it's the right thing to do.

When someone asks her if she knows what became of her father, she truthfully says she doesn't. And then, with a tinge of defiance, she adds, "I wouldn't tell nothin' if I did." The fact that her father left her and her family or cooked meth doesn't seem to bother her nearly as much as that he might have "snitched."

Conclusion

In the middle of her struggles, Ree takes her mother, serene and blank-faced, on a walk in the woods. They sit, and Ree—in the only moment of weakness we see from her—begs for help.

"There's things happening and I don't know what to do," she pleads, a tear tracking down her cheek. "Can you help me this one time?"

But even then, Ree probably knows she's on her own. At 17, she's the only intact adult around. And while her morals are messy and her means crude, she never loses sight of what she's trying to protect and save.

She quizzes Sonny and Ashlee on their spelling and math, and demands that they watch her cook (so they'll learn to do it too). When she comes back from her beating, she asks for one favor: that someone makes sure the kids study. Ree knows better than anyone that kids sometimes need to grow up fast. She wants her brother and sister to be ready.

One morning, Ree sniffs some old food in the fridge, curls her nose and then says, "Better than nothing."

Ree and her family are far better than nothing. They love each other, care for each other, protect each other. But we can't overlook the fact that it doesn't smell quite right.

Winter's Bone is based on the book by Daniel Woodrell, who says in John Williams' Back to the Badlands, "These people are so alienated from American culture that it's like a parallel universe." Indeed, the values in Winter's Bone are twisted, torn—much like the land they inhabit, much like the families that adhere to them, much like Ree's face after her beating. Truth and lies intermingle, right and wrong become confused. Heroes snort coke and threaten lawmen with guns. Here, your closest friends and hated enemies are all still kin, and you give them a cup of coffee before you kick in their heads.

Ree doesn't always make the right decisions, and little wonder. Winter's Bone is full of dysfunctional folks making terrible decisions because no one taught them any better. But at times, in places, we still find love. And that is far better than nothing.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

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