Winter’s Bone & Rural Nihilism

I wasn’t two seconds into viewing Winter’s Bone before I found myself crying.
In most ways, my hometown of Springfield, Missouri was light years away from the hills of Christian and Taney county, where the novel is set and the film was shot. But I spent a lot my spare time in high school hiking around those hills and ones in the neighboring counties.
To me, poverty will always mean homes you stumble across in the Ozark woods, then stand frozen until somebody calls their dogs off and you can retreat. The material poverty was never remotely part of my experience, but the cultural starvation—the sense that you’re utterly without resources and have to claw your way forward as best you can—that will never leave me. That’s what accounts for the gut -shot sympathy I felt when the film began.
One of the most affecting things about both the novel and the film is the way it captures how traditional sources of meaning have collapsed in a rural environment that I happen to know. I’m talking about “social capital,” the life-sustaining web of interactions and connections whose decline Robert Putnam writes of so eloquently. What’s left when “the code of the hills” is only a shibboleth for keeping away strangers, patriarchal privilege is disconnected from paternal responsibility, and “blood” becomes only a name?
The life Winter’s Bone portrays is on the margins of the most marginal of areas, but it casts a cold light on a larger rural America. The more insistent the rhetoric that the “heartlands” are vibrant repositories of traditional values and connections, the more disconnected it seems from life on the ground. Books like Nick Reding’s Methland detail the ways in which factory farming, multinational conglomerates, and reduced spending on education have shredded the fabric of small town life. For a culture to be vibrant and sustainable, to be more than what we might call “subsistence culture,” there has to be an economic substructure.
What happens when that substructure withers away, choking off traditional families and social spaces in the process?
One thing that happens, though it’s not portrayed in the movie, is that religion becomes more extreme: even if it’s a raft to nowhere, it’s a raft all the same. No coincidence that in this guise Christianity’s primary, even its only, motive is fear. A spark of warmth against an all-encompassing chill. If such Christianity is clannish and reactionary, in part this is because it has so few cultural competitors left. As far as meaning goes, fundamentalism is often the only remaining game outside of town, even if it has twisted into a mean-spirited defensive crouch, a shriveled parody of what religion can be.
But if even fundamentalism isn’t in the picture, what’s left? A consumer culture that has no place for people without money? Huddling in detritus from happier economic times and possibilities? One of the most telling, and to me true, details in the film was how most households never throw anything away, no matter how broken. Rusting cars are a cliché, but also a signal that there’s not enough infrastructure to part them out. More to the point, with toys, bottles, whatever–broken is better than nothing.
Winter’s Bone is set near a town an hour’s drive away from Branson, Missouri. Branson’s music shows celebrate a mythic rural America that no longer exists, blithely turning their back on the lives and struggles that Winter’s Bone documents. Branson is anchored by Silver Dollar City, a theme park that depicts an 1890s rural America without a Populist farmers revolt, Jim Crow, or women who can’t vote. (When the Beverley Hillbillies went back home, the scenes were shot in Silver Dollar City.) Everything is banjo-dandy, and everybody knows how to play a banjo. It’s no coincidence that the structure of the town’s music shows dates back to blackface minstrelsy. Branson, Missouri is a minstrel show for and about white people. A white rural version of plantation mythology, the happy, god-fearing whities down on the homestead. For me, this made the scene at the end of the film especially strong, a porch where no one remembers how to play a banjo.
For Nietzsche, nihilism is the despair cultures and individuals fall into when their traditional sources of value collapse, when our hopes and beliefs about how the world works turn out not to be true. Nihilism is what Ree, the film’s protagonist, must struggle against, fueled only by her loyalty to her siblings and a hopeless persistence. Is it any wonder that the Army recruiting office is her only visible escape hatch? That anyone who can survive this place is already a soldier?

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