Taking Stock: Unpacking Complex Storytelling in WINTER’S BONE
23 January 2011
Allow me to set the scene for you.
The camera cuts to Springfield Livestock Marketing Center where an announcer showcases cattle for perspective buyers. The camera captures the market from a high-angle at the top row of stadium seating. One cow is exiting the arena as the entrance gate opens for another to come in. However, just as the next cow is to enter the pen, the camera cuts to Ree, our leading lady, boldly entering the market.
The camera returns to the cattle and the livestock showcase continues as Ree surveys the perspective buyers, hoping to spot Thump Milton, Ree’s distant uncle who has information about her father, Jessup. As usual, her perceptive instincts led her right to Thump, and, as he glimpses Ree out the corner of his eye, Thump gets up and makes his exit. Avoiding Ree, Thump darts up the stairs and out the rear of the stadium. In close pursuit, Ree advances in the same direction.
The camera cuts once more to the enormous livestock holding area. The vast amounts of cattle are loud, and their bulging eyes show their fear. Walking along a metal corridor, which hangs high above the cattle, Ree continues her pursuit of Thump Milton despite the chaos below. Ree’s birds-eye perspective of the ground advantageously allows her to see order amidst turmoil; her perception is clearer from above because she is removed from the action below.
Unfortunately, although Ree’s position has its advantages, when she spots Thump, who is on the ground amid the cattle, she is too far away to communicate with him. Even though she yells as loud as she can, Thump cannot, or chooses not to hear her, and, because of her distant position, she can do nothing about it. Thump calmly leaves the livestock holding area, and, although Ree chases after him, she cannot catch him. The camera cuts between Ree running and a group of white cattle being herded. The last shot of the scene is one, lone white cow letting out a heartfelt, desperate cry.
This two-minute scene in Winter’s Bone exemplifies the layered cinematic story-telling the film excels at. This short scene magnifies the Dolly/Milton family dynamic and Ree’s struggle to survive in it.
First, the scene directly connects Ree with the livestock, which represents how women are viewed in this skewed patriarchal family. In the beginning of the scene, as the gate opens for the next cow to enter the arena, the camera cut’s to Ree entering the market. With this cut, the camera equates Ree’s to livestock. In addition, at the end of the scene, the cuts back and forth between Ree running after Thump and herding of white cattle continue to parallel the two. In her family’s world, Ree is livestock herded from one place to another, trapped in a circumstance beyond her control, the victim of brutality and violence in a system she only understands from a distance, indiscernible, unable to communicate, and revealing her fear silently through her eyes.
However, this short scene also captures Ree’s daring defiance against her family’s structure. Ree boldly enter’s the livestock market, and does so with confrontational intent. Although the audience already heard, from Thump’s own granddaughter, Meghan, of Thump’s terrifying disposition, Ree knowingly risks her well-being for the sake of her mother and siblings. Ree refuses to be cattle; knowing she needs a man to stand up for her with this family, she becomes her own man. Audaciously, Ree wears her black, buck’s head sweatshirt into the market, asserting she is all the man she needs to handle this situation. When Thump runs from her, she chases. When Thump ignores her calls, she yells louder. When Thump leaves the market, she follows. Ree breaks every protocol of this family’s structure.
What’s more, Ree, ultimately, gets away with this disobedience, in situations where she should have paid with her life. This is also explained in this brief scene by Ree’s physical separation from Thump in the cattle’s holding area. Ree is higher than Thump; Ree is better than Thump. Thump lives among the cattle, but Ree removed herself from the crowd. Not only that, but she keeps herself elevated. This continued elevation is present in her consistent refusal to accept drugs from Teardrop. Although Teardrop and Thump present different challenges for Ree, they both operate under the same distorted code of conduct Ree never reduces herself to. Her aerial perspective, made apparent by the corridor on the market’s holding area, makes it easy to see how corrupt the chaos below her—the chaos of her family—is. Keeping back and never falling into the chaos is how Ree survives.