By coincidence, I watched both True Grit (2010) and Winter’s Bone recently. Both films were nominated for Oscars in 2011, and much has been made over the parallels between them: incredibly tough teenage girl, left alone to care for her siblings and hapless mother, shows preternatural courage and determination on her quest— in True Grit, to find and kill her father’s murderer; in Winter’s Bone, to find her father, dead or alive.
It’s irresistible to compare the two movies, and it’s refreshing that neither girl is made a puppet for either feminist or conservative agitprop. But it doesn’t serve either film well to rate them against each other. They aim for and achieve different things.
True Grit is, above all, a fantastic adventure movie. We approach Coen Brothers movies guardedly, not wanting to be sucked into their alluring, self-referential, audience-hoodwinking, gorgeously crafted tricksiness. Nope, this time they just tell the story straight on, using all the wit, visual muscularity, and verbal dexterity that rightly wins them admiration, without shedding their knack for the slyly bizarre.
14-year-old Mattie is so unswervingly determined and steadfast that her victory is never in doubt: she will find her man, and he will die. True Grit explicitly invites comparison to The Night of the Hunter, beginning with the opening tune, a version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm.” As the Preacher in The Night of the Hunter embodies inexorable diabolical perversion, Mattie embodies relentless righteous revenge, but she is both hunter and victim: Her delirious horseback ride toward safety after her final trial in the mine shaft echoes the children’s dreamlike voyage downriver in The Night of the Hunter; and we know that, like those children, she will endure. She appears to have been born ready to take charge and follow through, finding the help she needs after her father is gone.
Along the way, her strength of character transforms the people around her, either bringing out their humanity or exposing the true depths of their depravity and weakness. The viewer is left utterly satisfied, stuffed with marvelous visuals, exhausted by the twists and turns in plot, but rewarded when things turn out in the world of the movie exactly as they should and must.
Now for Winter’s Bone: we follow 17-year-old Ree Dolly as she sets off on a father-seeking odyssey of her own—but he is no tragic and noble hero to be avenged. He has jumped bail on a meth-cooking charge, and his family will lose their home if someone doesn’t bring him home or prove he’s dead.
Poverty isn’t romanticized or politicized, and the director shows a tremendous astuteness while depicting the hierarchy among this ruinous people: Ree’s friend, her uncle, her distant relatives all show their signs of weakness and woe. All is laid bare in the details, but without bathos or manipulation. The world of the movie is flawlessly self-contained, without a speck of intrusion by the director—an incredible feat.
Ree briefly notes the other teenagers learning baby care with mechanized dolls—while Ree herself has left school to care (with piercing tenderness in every brusque motion) for her siblings. She knows the names of her sister’s toy horses; she matter-of-factly makes the kids sit on their hands for safety when she has to step away from their squirrel-shooting lesson. She seems to know and understand everyone, young and old, alive and dead. She accepts the wrongs she’s been done with withering practicality, swatting away her own longings so she can do what needs to be done.
Only twice does she show weakness, in a way that heightens the poignance of her otherwise unflinching determination: once as she begs her addled mother to help her, just this once; and later, as she is required to do the unthinkable thing that must be done—and she cannot.
This is what saves the movie from utter darkness: she is human, an actual girl. She is not a force of nature or a deadly machine aimed at justice; she still loves, and demands love. Her combination of strength and weakness is what draws out the humanity in other people: on her quest, she comes up against cruelty after unthinkable cruelty, but each person has something to offer, maybe in tribute to their own past suffering: a warm drink, some meat for the children, a jacket—and, at the end, a long-forgotten desire not to be despised by the community.
The crux of both the plot and the emotional weight of this entire world are contained in the most terrifying scene of the movie. One sister tells the other, “She can’t do it, Miriam,” and we see we’ve been watching a modern inversion of Exodus: salvation is to come by returning to jail, not to freedom; and the one who is to save them with his arms upraised must be drawn out of the water at the END of his story, not the beginning—and that is the beginning of the salvation of his people, set free from bondage (in the person of a bail bondsman). Whew, what a movie. We’re only scratching the surface here, this movie has so much on its mind.
Neither movie is for children, although I would sooner show True Grit than Winter’s Bone to teenagers. The tension of True Grit is enormous, but mostly physical, while Winter’s Bone is emotionally exhausting, and only more mature audiences (unlike these folks) will be able to discern the hope and salvation that Ree wins in the end.
Both excellent movies, executed with care, skill, and subtlety. Did you see them? What did you think? Here are Steven Greydanus’ review of Winter’s Bone and of True Grit; and my review of The Night of the Hunter.