As it turns out, two of the films I liked best this past year — Winter’s Bone and True Grit — are both built around tough girls who venture into a violent, deeply menacing wilderness in order to settle their fathers’ affairs. In True Grit, young Mattie Ross heads into the Choctaw territory (what would eventually become Oklahoma) to track down the outlaw who murdered her father. In Winter’s Bone, the wilderness is literal and figurative: Ree Dolly, at 17 the effective head of her household, wanders the Missouri Ozarks in search of her father, but the terrain is really the web of secrets connecting the rustic meth-cookers and redneck gangsters who may or may not know if her father is even alive. Both missions are resolved, but at a heavy price — maybe even heavier than the heroines seem to realize.
Of the two movies, True Grit is the most stylized and crowd-pleasing. Like the underlying Charles Portis novel, it satisfies the requirements of a solid Western while gently pushing the genre off balance with almost lethally dry humor. Some critics have used this new adaptation to swear allegiance to the first, which starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed federal marshal who is Mattie’s guide and chief protector. I always found that 1969 film nothing more than adequate: it was well directed and beautifully shot, but Wayne’s mountain-of-ham performance took the focus off Mattie, whose singular voice and relentless drive are the soul of the story.
The new Coen Brothers version is better in every way. Where John Wayne was content simply to reshuffle a career’s worth of Western cliches in playing Rooster, Jeff Bridges creates an actual character and inhabits him with complete authority. Hailee Steinfeld is everything one could hope for as Mattie Ross. Best of all, the Coens respect their source enough to use the deeply poignant closing line — “Time just gets away from us” — uttered when Hattie arrives, too late, for a reunion with Rooster.
The heroine of Winter’s Bone shares with Mattie a gift for forcing moral choices on people simply by insisting on her mission. Ree has learned that her meth-cooker father has disappeared after posting bail; since the family house and lands were the collateral, Ree has only a few days to bring in evidence of his whereabouts before she and her siblings are tossed out, with the younger kids destined to be shuffled through a series of foster homes. Though she is repeatedly warned to stop asking questions, Ree won’t quit, enduring verbal and physical abuse and the clear threat of murder. Effectively defenseless, Ree puts people in the position of deciding if they want to be as bad as they think they are. If the answer is yes, Ree will pay with her life.
Winter’s Bone is a harsh, unblinking film, and a perfect tonic to counteract culture-war propaganda about the superior values of “heartland” America. This heartland is cold indeed, and cliches about self-sufficiency and looking out for oneself translate all too well into a kind of backwoods omerta as scary as anything in The Godfather or The Wire. There is also evidence of a deeper moral chill in the matter-of-fact way Ree swats aside an attempt to throw her off her father’s trail, or the casual knowledge she shows when traversing the meth wasteland. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance conveys Ree’s stony determination, but it also suggests the psychological scars that made such determination necessary. Ree is forced to do things that few adults, let alone young girls, should have to do, and while we can admire Ree’s fortitude, Winter’s Bone never lets us forget that her situation is deeply wrong in ways that go far beyond the immediate question of keeping the family house.
There is a payoff to Ree’s quest, though the price is probably too high, just as Mattie’s search for justice is achieved only at enormous physical and mental cost. As each film ends, we know the heroines can look after themselves, but we can’t help thinking they would be facing better, happier lives if only someone had done the job for them at the times when it mattered most.