Meth and Myth in the Ozarks
Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is set in the very realistic and immediate economic reality of the Ozark mountains in rural Missouri. It’s a simple tale on the surface. 17 year old Rhee Dolly’s father Jessup has jumped parole. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, Rhee and her family will lose their house and their land. The story centers on Rhee’s search for her missing father in the hopes of saving her home. As Rhee embarks on her journey, this movie moves far beyond the seemingly simple framing of its surface narrative. Filmed on location in the Ozarks, the film uses the landscape to provide multiple layers of storytelling. It gives us a mystery, a classic odyssey, a kind of medieval mythic tale, a coming of age story, a regional melodrama, and finally a profoundly touching view of social realism all wrapped up in one girl’s struggle for survival. The movie beautifully merges unflinching socio-economic documentary within a mythic landscape and creates an American magic realism that is very much grounded in hardcore economic reality. On one hand, the woods and hills of the Ozarks and the cast of characters that inhabit them are like something out of a dark fairytale. On the other, their economic circumstances are brutally real and wedded tightly to the current political economy as well as to a deeply embedded social order and patriarchy.
By putting Rhee’s plight into a mythical environment of the real, Winter’s Bone addresses things that people rarely allow themselves to see in America. The movie shows in no uncertain terms that old order patriarchy does indeed exist and drives the economy in this country, but it also shows class in a way that is starkly real and not encased in stereotypes and caricatures. Walking the line between myth and reality, the movie deconstructs stereotypes and exposes economic and gender realities that are frequently ignored in American cinema. Winter’s Bone manages to be both a feminist treatise and a populist portrait of a landscape ravaged by the cannibalistic beast of global capital.
I saw the movie twice, and it’s actually very good that I did because on second viewing, so many more layers rose to the surface for me. On first viewing, I was very focused on the economic narrative which is enormously relevant. Jessup, the father in the film, is arrested for cooking crank, and the entire movie’s narrative is driven by the culture of meth production in the Ozarks. Given that I recently read Nick Reding’s Methland and have a better understanding of how the economics of meth directly relate to the economic pillaging of working class America, it is clear to me how quietly and beautifully Winter’s Bone uses the plight of Rhee to show how much the human landscape of places like the Ozarks has been ravaged by the global economy. Local production of everything from lumber to cattle has been taken over by global corporate interests. Jobs and wages have been cut, and labor unions have been dismantled. In places like we see in Winter’s Bone, crank has become the source of the new local economy. Crank enables people to work harder for less, gets them high so they can forget their shitty economic circumstances, and finally allows opportunities for independent production of drugs even though that production still ultimately serves the interests of those in power. All of this is present in Granik’s movie, but the movie moves beyond just critiquing meth culture or bartering in white trash clichés. Instead it uses the reality of crank in the Ozarks, an environment where almost everyone’s hands are dirty with the chemicals and economics that produce the drug, to paint a mythic portrait of a demographic that has been gutted by the economy but also manages to remain deeply rooted in archaic traditions. On some levels the history of economic globalization has wrecked these people’s lives, but on other levels it’s like history has never happened.
It is this fluctuation between the economic reality of the present with a classic mythical quality that evokes a lost past that makes Winter’s Bone such an interesting and rewarding film to watch. The movie opens with a scene that seems like a portrait of ordinary working class kids playing in their yard. The wind blows through the winter bare trees as a young girl jumps on a trampoline while her brother rides a skateboard up and down the dirt path outside their ramshackle house in the hills. The landscape is littered with the stuff of the working class. An old truck, a car seat, a toy kitchen and vanity play set, a rocking horse, ladders, empty gas cans, paint buckets, and a satellite dish. I recognize these items. Some of them are in my yard for my kid to play with or in my garage for house projects. As the camera moves from the grounded reality of the children playing in the yard and into wide angle shot of the treetops, the wind whistles through the trees and the trees take on a mythic quality. Nature becomes an otherworldly space, and our sense of realism in the movie starts to shift. Yes, the landscape of the houses and the people in this film are very much grounded in its economic reality. The things that litter the yards and clutter the interior spaces are so real that they can’t even be described as mise-en-scène. It’s more like documentary photography of how things actually are. But this reality is situated in the haunted mythic landscape of the hills and the dense woods that cover them. When Rhee enters the picture, she is utterly grounded in reality – bundled up in a man’s coat and slugging through the very real winter landscape in heavy boots and jeans – yet something about how she traverses this tree-clustered barren winter landscape gives her a mystical heroic quality. Though the landscape is so huge and Rhee seems so small, she maintains an enormous solidity in its presence. You almost expect her to ride into the scene on a unicorn.
But Rhee doesn’t ride in on a unicorn. Instead she walks her starving horse over to a neighbor’s house and asks the neighbor Sonya to look after it because Rhee can no longer feed it. It is this first interaction that sets the odd tone and tension between the characters in the movie. From Rhee’s crank-snorting uncle Teardrop to the haggish Merab and her patriarchal father Thump and all the various men and women with whom Rhee interacts, all the characters are undeniably real with their worn and haggard faces, dirty fingernails, tattooed and work-beaten bodies. They wear their baseball caps, t-shirts, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and work boots. They drive trucks and keep guns on their kitchen tables. They kill deer, skin them, and cook stew out of them. They snort lines of crank out of baggies stuffed with the white powder. They chop wood, drink beer, play poker, and shoot pool. But they’re also all like characters out of some arcane medieval tale. They hover and twitch in their cluttered homes with hazy winter light filtering through the blanket covered windows like some kind of elves in hiding. Their eyes stare out of their faces with distrust and resignation but also with defiance and strength. When Rhee brings her horse to Sonya, Sonya looks at Rhee with both a quiet menace and self-assured acceptance. She’s shoveling hay like any woman working her farm, but she is also holding court like some kind of Farm Crone in charge of casting the fate of Rhee. We don’t know if Sonya is going to accept the horse or shoot the horse. When she eventually nods and leads the horse to the hay, Sonya embodies both a resignation to circumstance and a strength and honor in her position that we see in all the characters as they navigate the terms of their survival. When Rhee hands the reigns of the horse to Sonya, the look on her face is unfathomably sad but also defiantly strong at the same time.
This tone is critical to the movie and is what allows the characters in the film to transcend depictions of stereotypes and caricatures. Yes, their circumstances are brutally hard, and the socio-economic landscape they occupy could easily be parodied or derided, yet the movie never once dishonors its characters. This is a movie about the reality of survival, and that reality for this demographic involves the culture of drugs. Even while emitting a terrible menace and a layer of drug coated despair and anger, the characters in this movie hold onto a kind of code of honor that makes them both menacing (fuck with the code and you’re dead) but also oddly reliable and true (follow the code and they’ll cover your ass). With names like Teardrop, Thump, Little Arthur, and Merab, their names are like something out of fables, biblical stories or medieval tales, and the characters that Rhee encounters are truly like something from the dark wooded landscape of a classical myth. Like in fairytales, they are simultaneously monstrous yet they all seem to have a tender spot, as long as the order of things is followed. At one moment a character is beating the living shit out of Rhee, but in another the same character is actually helping save Rhee’s home and family.
Thump, the big granddaddy patriarch, is like the ogre on the hill. He seems to be both the keeper of secrets and the keeper of power. When Rhee climbs the hill to ask Thump about her missing father, it is like she is Jack climbing the beanstalk to look for the golden egg. Before she gets to Thump, Rhee works her way through a landscape of men who maintain power over women and the women who somehow manage to maintain integrity even while occupying their inferior position in this old patriarchal order of the meth-infested Ozarks. First, there is Teardrop and his wife Victoria. When Rhee asks Teardrop about her father’s whereabouts and Victoria tries to intervene on Rhee’s behalf, Teardrop threatens, “I told you to keep your mouth shut once with my words,” implying that the next time would be with his fists. When Rhee then visits her friend Gail to borrow her truck, Gail tells Rhee that her husband won’t let her use it. Rhee asks “Why not,” and Gail responds, “When you get married men don’t tell you why not, they just tell you no.” Sonya and her husband are willing to take Rhee’s brother Sonny off her hands to help out, but that they have no need for the girl child. When Rhee finally makes her way to Thump’s house, his daughter Merab asks her, “Don’t you have no men to do this for you?” In one of the final scenes when the sheriff cautions Rhee not to talk bad about him behind his back, Rhee responds, “I never talk about you men.”
Yet, despite these multiple scenes when it is made clear that the women in this film understand their inferior position in the social order of things, the women also seem to band together in strength and sisterhood to push the new girl forward and over the threshold of patriarchal control. Indeed, above all else this is a story of women surviving in a landscape of men and of a young girl heroine Rhee Dolly rising above it all to take care of her family. What makes it beautiful instead of trite and stereotypical is the complexity of the characters. The women are certainly far from victims in this story. They are all hard, strong, and survivors to the core. When Thump’s cadre of daughters surface and beat-up Rhee but then return to help Rhee save her home and family, they are like some kind of ancient timeless band of witches stirring their cauldron with shotguns and chainsaws as they serve King Thump. But it is also clear that they are out to protect themselves and one of their “sisters” even when punching her lights out. Rhee’s mother, who has supposedly gone insane from the pressures of being a woman in this hardcore drug-fueled patriarchal landscape, has the aura of some kind of female shaman about her. Her eyes gleam not so much with insanity but with a knowledge that goes far beyond anything that could be articulated in the words she refuses to speak. Her silence is her strength not her liability. At every turn, these women who seem to make Rhee’s life more difficult actually help Rhee overcome her circumstances and push her through to a stronger side where she has more control of herself than they ever had. Sonya at one turn offers to take Sonny away but at another delivers a bottle full of pain pills to ease Rhee’s pain. Rhee’s mother’s silence forces Rhee to act on her own and take control of her own life. Even Thump’s hag daughters carry Rhee over the threshold by leading her to freedom through a painfully gruesome act of reconciliation.
Rhee’s story is indeed a story of triumph through suffering, but she takes her suffering with the strength and integrity of a canon, and she wins. This is not a movie about martyrdom but about survival. One of the things that’s interesting about the movie is how it how it maneuvers between the nihilistic economic landscape of present day reality but also inspires hope through the heroic odyssey. The movie is so utterly grounded in the hardcore reality of economic hardship that it is hard to believe that Rhee can overcome her circumstances, but it is also impossible for us not to cheer for her. There is no doubt that such brutal circumstances in real life rarely deliver a happy ending, and it is hard to allow ourselves to have hope for Rhee. Yet, as gritty and desperate as the movie is on the surface, it refuses to allow us to give up. It is because the movie is grounded in the framing of a mythic odyssey that we can allow ourselves to overcome our pessimism and accept that Rhee truly can be a hero.
Besides the mythical feeling of the landscape and the depiction of the characters like they’re something out of Beowulf, the movie further pushes us into the murky territory between fantasy and reality through language. On second viewing, I realized how stilted and archaic the syntax and delivery of the lines in the movie are. At times, it feels like the screenplay was written in verse. The use of music adds to the feeling of theatrical poetics. In one scene when Rhee visits her dad’s girlfriend April (played eerily by Sheryl Lee, the infamous Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks which Winter’s Bone references on more than one occasion), she walks in on a group of people playing instruments while an older woman sings like some kind of age-old angel singing to us from eternity itself. No doubt consciously addressing the banjo scene in Deliverance, this scene and the movie as a whole allows the characters to transcend the hillbilly stereotypes that movies like Deliverance are so famous for portraying. As the woman sings and the men play their instruments, another group of men sit around the table playing poker. The whole scene feels like we are stepping through the other side of the curtain that Hollywood depictions of “white trash” stereotypes have put in place. This scene plays like a classical theatrical tableaux in which the narrative of reality (April telling an unsettling story about the last time she saw Rhee’s dad) is being echoed by the music of the muses who instill a spiritual depth to this rural lower working class world.
Speaking of Beowulf, the scene when Rhee takes the boat out onto the lake with Thump’s hags and finally finds her father certainly evokes the eerie dark mythic quality of Beowulf’s final battle in the blood stained lake. Like Beowulf, Rhee has gone through a series of tests, but rather than being brought to her doom by the monstrous mother in the lake, Rhee is delivered to her freedom by emerging herself into the lake to resurrect her dead father. As mythic as that scene is, it is also enormously emotionally devastating. The sound of the chainsaw powering up cuts straight to our guts as tears pour town Rhee’s cheeks and she holds her father’s arms in the freezing water so Merab can cut his hands off with a chainsaw. This scene is as brutal as the story of Beowulf in its own way, but it is also firmly grounded in a reality that allows for no room for the weak. Rhee is certainly not even close to being weak, and she pours her strength into every scene. Whether running a comb through her mother’s hair, spitting out a tooth from her bloody mouth, skinning a squirrel, teaching her kid sister and brother how to shoot a gun, or holding her dead father’s arm while a hag cuts his hand off with a chainsaw, Rhee never backs down.
Though the movie evokes a kind of mythic medieval code of the past (which is very much a part of Southern culture), the economic reality of the landscape Rhee occupies is very much part of the 21st century. The rupture between myth and reality is most powerfully felt by the intrusion of capital via the patriarch Thump. It is clear that Thump has always reigned in this region. He wears the colors of his motorcycle gang uniform like medieval armor, but his electric garage door on his barn and his brand new Cadillac convertible are definitely nothing from a fairytale past. These are items that he purchased by taking advantage of the new economy – one that is driven by drug production rather than cattle farming. All around Thump’s house and the houses of the other people in the community, we see remnants of an economy that no longer is valid – rusty farming equipment and empty gas cans that once powered chainsaws. This is a world where farming has been incorporated and globalized like every other capital-driven industry. Whether farming cattle or cutting lumber, the jobs these people once held have become obsolete in an economy where lumber and meat production have been taken over by global corporate powers. There are no more jobs for the Teardrops or the Jessups of the Ozarks, so they cook meth instead. It is their livelihood, and it is also their poison. In one scene, Rhee tracks down Thump at a cattle auction. The stockyards and seats at the auction are more than half empty, and the whole place echoes with the cries of cattle and yells of men inside a near empty stockyard. That kind of local farming no longer carries any economic weight, yet these last haggard men hold onto the vestiges of a dying business, and they shout out their bids for cows as if these are the last cows on earth. It is clear that Thump was probably once the Cattle King of the territory, but he has now transferred his role of patriarch to meth production, doing what he can with his farm to maintain some kind of economic control in a global climate that would just as soon kill him off and level his land.
Speaking of land, part of the reason that the landscape echoes with such a mystical haunted quality in this movie is the knowledge that land as we see it in this film is an endangered species. It very well may soon be something of the past as global interests buy it up from the economically downtrodden and plow it down. (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”)When Rhee struggles to decide whether or not to sell off her family’s land to keep the house, Teardrop acknowledges, “They’ll cut down those hundred year old woods the minute you sell them.” The lumber is worth more than the people who live in the hills in our 21st century economy. It may seem like this landscape is caught in a time capsule, but the details in the film make it clear that the same global economy that closed down local farms and lumber yards dictates the fate of this landscape. Those ragged American flags hanging over windows as curtains or off of front porches have done nothing to protect these people. All they have is themselves, their meth and their code of honor which seems to be the only way they feel like they can control their destiny and their community. It’s like a big poisonous dragon lives under those hills, and he’s got an appetite to gobble up the land, so these tattooed drugged-out men in their trucks, cook their meth and adhere to their code in the hopes of fending off the hungry beast that’s ready to swallow them all.
Oddly, as we watch Rhee’s odyssey through a world of haggish women and menacing men, more than anything we see a group of people attempting to navigate their age old code of honor in a dangerous, menacing and unforgiving economic landscape. If we look deep enough into the picture, we realize that the menace is not so much coming from within this community but from without, from the corporate economic powers that have rendered these people obsolete and given them no options but drugs for survival and escape. Over and over again, the movie references the strength of kin and blood and honor in a world that leaves very few options for the rural working class to live an “honorable” life. All those things that fill Rhee’s home – the trampoline, the waterbed, the skateboard, the satellite dish – are the kinds of things that every working class dad wants to buy for his family. Rhee’s dad provided those things through the only means of production available to him – drugs. It ended up being a Lose-Lose Game for him, and deciding between loyalty to his direct kin over loyalty to the overall clan of the community undid him. But in the end Rhee still manages to win and maintain her code of honor. Towards the end of the movie, Rhee looks at Teardrop and says, “You’ve always scared me.” Teardrop replies, “That’s because you’re smart.”
Indeed, Rhee is smart even when her defiance seems to be her greatest liability. Normally I would read Rhee’s victory as overly sentimental and unrealistic, but because this movie is doing so much at once – providing a riveting thriller, a mythic odyssey, an ode to female strength in the face of patriarchal domination, and a portrait of social economic realism – Rhee’s victory works beautifully. She is an utterly real fearless 17 year old girl facing overwhelmingly despairing economic hardship, but she also gets to be a kind of warrior princess in her mythic odyssey. In the final scene, as Rhee sits on the porch and her little sister plucks away at her dead father’s banjo, we realize that the torch has been passed, that something about Rhee’s strength and her defiant refusal to cave into old systems while also navigating what is meaningful about the code of honor (“never ask for that which should be offered”) opens the door for some hope. Or at least let’s one small crack of light inside before the next threat enters the scene. What that hope is going to look like isn’t particularly clear. It certainly isn’t contained in that ragged American flag hanging off the porch, but I think that part of it can be heard in the rustle of leaves as the wind blows through the trees in the hills.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.