By coincidence, I happened to watch both True Grit and Winter’s Bone this weekend. For a number of reasons, I’d procrastinated on seeing True Grit in theaters, and the Winter’s Bone DVD sat collecting dust in its little red envelope, its availability allowing me to delay watching it. But thanks to a brief break in my writing schedule, I found a chance to catch up on these two films, allowing me to reflect on the similarities between the two films: namely that both films depict tough, even stubborn, teenage girls bent on addressing an absent father. Mattie in True Grit seeks to avenge the death of her father; while Ree in Winter’s Bone takes on the task of finding her bail-hopping father to save her family’s home from being taken away.
Both films also entail classic wilderness motifs, even while tweaking those elements to genre and thematic concerns. In True Grit, Mattie famously hires Rooster Cogburn, a tough, but weathered, U.S. Marshal to seek out her father’s killer in “Indian country,” and then insists on following him into the wilderness to see that the work is done. To demonstrate her mettle, Mattie follows Rooster and oddly charming Texas Ranger LaBoeuf across a river–a classic threshold moment–and continues with her single-minded focus on tracking Tom Chaney, while Rooster and LaBoeuf are often reduced to petty bickering about who is a better shot (read: better man), shooting all of their cornbread in an improvised target shooting contest. Their confrontations with various unsavory types–the boundaries between law and lawlessness become increasingly permeable outside the city–also mix in darkly comic elements. We’re not sure in places whether to laugh or be horrified by Cogburn’s actions.
Unlike these darkly comic moments, the regional neorealism and southern Gothic elements of Winter’s Bone create a much different mood. The film opens with Ree managing her household–her mother is either too traumatized or too strung out on medication to be of any help–when a sheriff approaches her to let her know that her father has put up their house as collateral for his bail. Ree determines that she will find her father to ask him to turn himself in, and when it becomes clear that he may have been killed, to find his body. Ree’s adventures take her deeper into a meth syndicate, one that seems to weave deeply into her family tree–everyone in her Ozark town seems to be a “cousin” of someone else–and one that doesn’t trust outsiders, especially someone who might get the police involved. At the same time, Ree weighs any form of escape she can find. Learning that joining the military could provode her with the money to save her meager home (and could provide her with an escape from her Ozark community), she visits a military recruiter, who politely rebuffs her because of her age. Eventually Ree receives some support from her father’s somewhat estranged brother, Teardrop. Like the Indian country of True Grit, the mountains and woods offer a wilderness where traditional rules may not apply and where an unhealthy patriarchy still holds (at one point, the wife of a local dealer insists that “no man” touched Ree when she gets beaten up).
I’m certainly not the first person to notice this coincidence. Aymar Jean Christian blogged about this several weeks ago, and argued that True Grit’s lighter touch–true to most Coen Brothers films, it contains some darkly comic moments–makes it the superior film. Winter’s Bone, with its depiction of a rural, paranoid, meth-addicted Ozark community seems, Aymar implies, almost too unrelenting. I’m not really interested in choosing which film is superior, but it probably is worth noting that two films with such similar plots seem to be resonating with audiences and critics alike. I think that what makes Mattie such a powerful character is her unflinching view toward violence. During a public hanging of three criminals, she hardly blinks, accepting the violence as a normal, even necessary, part of frontier justice.
Ree, by comparison, seems focused on preserving some version of family normalcy in the face of poverty and isolation. She teaches her younger siblings how to shoot, how to skin a squirrel, essentially how to survive. She instructs her siblings not to ask for charity because “you shouldn’t have to ask.” When a neighbor offers to raise one of the children–to “take over” as she puts it–Ree is horrified by the thought of breaking up the family. This determination allows Ree to go deeper into the claustrophobic Ozark landscape to seek out the location of her father. And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Aymar a little. Aymar argues that Ree’s situation (and especially the film’s lack of humor) “inspires pity rather than empathy,” but I’m not quite sure that’s right. First, I think the film avoids caricaturing southerners. All of the people Ree encounters are complexly drawn, their motivations shaped both by their need for survival and their recognition of Ree’s need to find her father. In fact, there are some moments of humor–Ree’s ability to challenge her friend into manipulating her husband to loan her a car is one such moment–and although Ree lives in poverty, she also seeks to create a sense of normalcy for herself and her family. Like Roger Ebert, I found Ree’s determination and decency to be a powerful antidote to her unrelenting environment.
Both films offer fascinating, determined, even complex heroines, and I’d take many more films like them.