Reviewing Winter's Bone, David Denby summarizes what he regards as the film's heroic and hopeful conclusion:
Ree is the only hope amid this sordid life. She's not just the most interesting teen-ager around, she's more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we've seen peacocking through movies recently. In its lived-in, completely non-ideological way, "Winter's Bone" is one of the great feminist works in film.Here's the problem with Winter's Bone as a tale of heroic redemption: it doesn't add up. The film opens with Ree needing to borrow from neighbors to feed her siblings and emotionally debilitated mother, and we soon learn that her extended family is a meth-dealing empire commanded, for now, by one of her more violent and volatile uncles. Her father has skipped bail just before putting up Ree's family's house as collateral, so her heroic quest becomes establishing her father's whereabouts before the authorities can seize the property. Her path takes her into questions the rest of the extended family does not want asked or answered for reasons that eventually become clear when a round of grisly chainsaw-aided high-stakes noodlin' establishes that her father has been killed and sunk into a shallow pond.
And there it ends, more or less, with Ree having stood her ground against the the depredations of poverty, the indifferent-at-best legal system, the falling fortunes of immediate family, and her provably deadly, dishonest kin. As credits roll, the tornado-strong question is where this outcome leaves Ree and those she is trying to protect -- how, in other words, this dauntlessness of hers can be said to have redeemed or improved anything.
Ree's unfolding quest has revealed, but not expanded, three paltry options: (a) the family meth trade, which she has already spurned; (b) the military, which she's smart enough to see is a dead end; or (c) having a few kids of her own, presumably in hopes that 20 years down the line, things will be unaccountably better.
Looking at the ending in narrower, more concrete terms reveals, if anything, a grimmer picture. To put it with my customary delicacy, since when did dropping a water-logged, freshly-sawed hand into a Missouri Sheriff's inbox ever improve the fortunes, legal or otherwise, of the meth-empire-connected teen making the delivery? Since never, that's when.
No, it would open a difficult conversation that begins with the sheriff shouting, "just what in THE hell is that thing?!?!" accompanied by the pulling of a sidearm.
Charitably assuming the severed hand is sufficient to establish that pa is dead (doubtful), and further assuming its presentation leads to the cancellation of the county's lien without a few thousand extra dollars in attorney's fees (more doubtful), and further assuming Ree is not immediately suspected of the crime (more doubtful) -- assuming all of this, it begins a murder investigation in which Ree is the primary witness. Or, as bad or worse in the context, she would be assumed to be the a witness by all the self-same unstable, vicious, meth-fueled paranoids she just spent a whole movie barely surviving, at least one of whom has recently proved capable of killing and discarding a member of Ree's immediate family.
But that's good, right? That the legal authorities should finally swoop in clean out the ponds? In theory, yes. Then again, this is Tweaker's Holler, one of the least tony sections of Dogpatch, where it's not considered worthy of the District Attorney's investigatory efforts unless a working pick-up truck was destroyed in the commission of the crime. Beat, shoot, stab, dismember, and drown all the meth-heads you like, but water-logging a Chevy could put your ass in the electric chair.
Everyone around Ree implicitly distrusts the law, and she is, at best, about to learn why -- assuming she evades the wrath of her kin long enough to appreciate the lesson.
Even brushing all that aside, and somehow assuming that the legal authorities will respond with textbook probity, have Ree's prospects thereby noticeably improved? There are exactly three sources of value in sight -- meth, land, and family honor. She won't sell the first two, and can only hope to physically survive the latter. That takes Ree back exactly where she started as the film opened.
From what I can see, Ree's undoubted courage won her a fresh trauma or two. Symbolically, she reached in and pressed through cold, murky despair, can't-win-legalities, broken family entanglements (etc.), to pull up a piece of truth. I am on record as being pro-truth, but nothing here will set her free. There is no uplift, heroism, hope, or triumph here -- just the prospect of another generation sawing something from the bottom of the same pond in another 20 years.