Ree Dolly, heroine of Debra Granik’s bleak and moving ‘Winter’s Bone’ (2010), lives at the end of the road, without a car or truck, on the bottom rung of a world where cooking methamphetamine offers one of the few means to earn money and in which even the values of kin and clan have begun to decay.
Personal survival, often ruthless in execution, represents the most universal “value,” if we can give it that name, redeemed at moments by muted concern for one’s nearest relations. A hollow code of shame and reputation dominates the men of this world, motivating them to acts of revenge and cruelty. The women may display more communitarian values, more concern for one another, but they live in constant fear of their violent men, generally controlled and dominated by them.
At the film’s opening, we learn that Ree’s father Jessup has put up the family home and surrounding lands as collateral for a bail bond, following his arrest (yet again) on suspicion of cooking meth. A local police officer informs Ree that Jessup has disappeared; if he doesn’t return in time for his next court hearing, the collateral will be forfeit.
Ree’s mother, worn out by the drugs and despair of her world, has checked out both emotionally and psychologically and seems entirely unaware of the family’s predicament. Without parents, though only 17 years old, Ree must assume the role of both mother and father to her two younger siblings. Her drive to preserve the family home for them, so she’ll be able to shepherd her brother and sister through to adulthood, lies at the heart of the movie.
From the beginning, Ree continually attempts to pass along her meager store of knowledge and experience to her siblings: asking them math and spelling questions on the way to school, teaching them how to use guns safely, demonstrating how to skin and cook a squirrel. When she learns they may lose the family homestead unless she can find and deliver her father, Ree displays courage and tenacity in her search, asking for help from friends and distant relatives along the way. In both maternal and paternal ways, Ree exemplifies the loving concern, devotion and selflessness at the core of good parenting.
The question we confront, as viewers, is whether Ree’s values can survive in this world. That is, do true love and concern for other people have any real chance, or will antisocial violence, cruelty and despair annihilate them?
Watching this film, I was reminded of a number of clients I’ve seen over the years — ones that didn’t work out for the most part, all of them in the realm of borderline personality disorder with substance abuse and self-destructive behavior involved.
At core, these clients all felt their psyches to be a hopeless disaster area, an internal wasteland bearing a strong resemblance to the external landscape of ‘Winter’s Bone.’ With such clients, it’s always a struggle to develop a working relationship and emotional bond strong enough to withstand the inevitable emotional violence.
Such clients have a hard time believing you really care about them; they find it difficult and painful to rely upon you for authentic help, to keep awareness of their need and dependency alive. On the one hand, the wish for ideal and perfect answers constantly leads them to abandon the therapeutic relationship, as I’ve described elsewhere; the transient thrill of destruction, on the other, tempts them to destroy it.
In sessions when I touched upon the underlying shame and despair within my clients, perhaps too soon to be tolerated, they occasionally erupted in violence, screaming at me, abusing me, even slamming the door and storming out. Some never came back; a few weathered the storm and learned to tolerate their shame. Helping such clients confront the internal damage and despair poses a great emotional challenge: because our attempts to shed light on internal truth occasion so much pain, they are often felt as attacks, sometimes provoking our clients to attack us back.
Ree’s persistence in guarding the welfare of her family in the face of threats and physical violence struck me as a fitting metaphor for the therapeutic journey. In the face of such a daunting emotional challenge, it would be so much easier to jump ship and refer the client to somebody else, or offer medication instead, the way two of the characters in ‘Winter’s Bone’ offer Ree drugs instead of the aid she genuinely needs.
At the end of the film, Ree’s values seem, at least temporarily, to have won the day. Her uncle Teardrop, physically abusive in their first scene, eventually agrees to assist her. A clan of women helps her find the evidence she needs for the police. But those women merely want to stop trash talk about themselves in the community, however, not help Ree because they feel concern or empathy. They seek merely to ward off shame and humiliation. And then, Teardrop’s very life seems to be at risk as a result of joining Ree’s search for answers. He may “know” the truth, as he tells her in the final scene, but by declining to accept the gift of Jessup’s banjo, leaving it instead in Ree’s safe-keeping, he seems to doubt whether he’ll survive long enough to play it.
In the struggle to overcome emotional violence and discover psychological truth, violence sometimes wins.