Wherein lies the appeal of tales of quests? Perhaps it is that a part of the human condition is an innate ‘striving-for,’ and for the vast majority of us the subject of our ‘striving-for’ is unknown (This is a point to be expanded on elsewhere). A quest has a distinct goal, and would furnish us with a subject to ‘strive-for,’ while the well-told tale of a quest might provide us with a vicarious outlet for our own unfulfilled and directionless ‘striving-for.’ It is this vicarious participation that accounts for our tendency to become sympathetic to the character who sets out on a quest, a sympathy that can allow us to ignore or downplay certain unpleasant characteristics that a protagonist may display. Of course, if a character displays noble or admirable traits, we may become even more deeply invested in the character’s fate or success, even if the character belongs to a culture that is foreign to us, and is the sort of character that we wouldn’t be able to come to know in the course of our lives.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), of 'Winter’s Bone', is the sort of character that many of us would be unfamiliar with. She lives in the Ozarks and belongs to a community that is insular to the extreme. Her mother is an invalid of some sort while her father is a meth cook who’s MIA, which leaves the 17-year old Ree as the sole caretaker of her much younger brother and sister. Their father, unscrupulous as all hell, has skipped out on his bail, which shouldn’t affect Ree and her siblings except for the fact that he posted their house and surrounding lot for bond; unless he is found, the house will be forfeited to the bondsman, and the family turned out. Ree, a modern day Stoic whose mask barely slips throughout the entire film, accepts her burden with barely a blink. “I’ll find him,” she tells the sheriff who's informed her of her father’s truancy, and although the movie’s barely begun, we know that she will.
And so begins Ree’s quest to find her father and bring him to justice. By doing so, she begins to navigate the system of suspicion, drugs, and family loyalties that dominates the backwoods society that she belongs to. It is a tough, unforgiving, and merciless system, and Ree tries to maneuver through it as best she can, desperately searching for any information that could help.
Her quest is no easy one, for most of her obstacles take the form of stubborn, and at times frighteningly and impulsively violent individuals who deliberately withhold information and have no desire to be convinced of the virtuousness of her mission, regardless of the consequences that may befall her and her family. The community that she exists in treats reticence and secrecy as near sacrosanct; even trying to ask questions can result in beatings.
It’s remarkable, really, that in the face of overwhelming difficulties that this young girl can find the tenacity to proceed and continue striving. But the thing is, there is no room for failure. In the midst of her quest’s uncertainties, there is one absolute truth: she must succeed, regardless of the obstacles in her path, and it is a testament to the story that we, as viewers, recognize this fact and thus urge her on to victory, even as her circumstances grow more direr and the tasks set before her grow more arduous.
Winter is the perfect backdrop for the story, as are the poverty stricken Ozark woods. Nature is lifeless, filled with barren trees and a cold, grey light that complements Ree's bleak prospects and hopeless quest perfectly. The trees are gaunt survivors and yards are strewn with debris and refuse. Rusting cars and other detritus remind us of the forgotten society that exists here. Nothing is new or shiny; everything has been beaten down, stripped to hollow frames, like the meth-ravaged human landscape that surrounds Ree.
I would be remiss not to draw some comparisons between this movie and True Grit, another movie with a female protagonist who shows uncommon pluck. Both Ree and Mattie Ross must set out in order to capture an unscrupulous male. The circumstances are different, however. Mattie’s quest is one of revenge, where she searches for her father’s killer in order to bring him to justice. Ree’s is one unconcerned with justice or revenge; she doesn’t even seem mad at her father for what he’s done, just determined to prevent the outcome of his thoughtless actions from reaching fruition.
Both characters, too, must venture into lawless territory. For Mattie it’s Choctaw Indian territory; for Ree, her own backyard. This brings me to the point wherein the two characters differ. Mattie is a girl who relies upon the law: she enlists a U.S. Marshall to help her complete her quest, and at other times depends on the existence of her lawyer, J. Noble Dagett. Indeed, Mattie is most comfortable and most successful in her endeavors when navigating the legal system. Ree stands in stark contrast to it. She has no recourse within the system, and is compelled to operate outside of it. This is palpable to the viewer, and it serves to make Ree’s quest all the more desperate; she is alone, and she is the only person that can solve her problems.
The movie is up for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress in a Leading Role. It’s the type of film that captivates you with its depictions of a sordid and ruined version of humanity and affects you, the sort that you think about for days not because of its plot, but because of how it viscerally engages you and forces your participation as the story unfolds.