‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Fish Tank’: Cinema’s subtle female avengers

I had recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s all-time-downer-classic, “Cries and Whispers,” for the second time when an article critiquing the latest phenomenon of young, sexualized and violent female characters in film appeared in the New York Times. A.O Scott and Manohla Dargis cite “Kick-Ass,” “Sucker Punch,” and the “Millennium” trilogy as films with young women who express themselves either through superpowers, sexuality, or heinous violence.  In “Cries and Whispers,” film nearly forty years old, I realized that the three sisters essentially express their repressed emotions in almost this same exact manner (save the superpowers, perhaps).  The only difference is that the violence is self-inflicted and the sexuality is merely hinted through gestures, sidelong glances, and the occasional touch and kiss.

My point is that it is possible to convey the “complex intertwinings of sex and violence” without female exploitation and special effects.  Furthermore, we still see examples, few they may be, of young women who assert their power through more multi-faceted and subtle means. Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis justly but briefly mention these films and characters, I would like to expand on their observations.  Two standout heroines who broke the mold of ass-kicking, gun-slinging girls were Ree in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Mia in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”  In “Winter’s Bone,” Ree exudes her power over others—men included—neither through sexuality or violence; her voice barely even raises above a low whisper, save for one crucial moment.  Mia, although a decidedly more brazen presence than Ree, articulates her very fraught emotions through the silence and fluidity of dance.

Both Mia and Ree do share some interesting similarities with the women of “Kick-Ass” and “Sucker Punch,” such as the pattern of what Mr. Scott calls “reassuring and creepy” father figures.  These are men who take young, vulnerable girls under their wing and proceed to sexualize them and/or persuade them into violent action.  Mia perceives Conor, her mother’s boyfriend, as father figure, but is also attracted to him, a fact that Conor eventually takes full advantage of.  What is most disturbing about Ms. Arnold’s depiction of their relationship is that initially, Conor’s actions can be viewed as either extremely inappropriate or utterly innocent.  When Mia falls asleep on the couch, Conor carries her like a baby to her room, lays her on the bed and takes of her pants, only to lift the covers over her legs and up to her shoulders, tucking her in.  The “creepy” factor is definitely there, but also the possibility of a paternal figure.  Ree and Teardrop share a similarly complex relationship, minus the sexual innuendo, although the threat of violence is certainly there at first.  Teardrop is the brother of her missing father, and despite his skinny, hangdog demeanor, he is one scary guy.  We are first introduced to him as he ambles down the staircase of his house, still in his pajamas.  A cup of coffee is placed on the table in front of him and he hunches down and slurps the coffee, hands-free, hinting at his animal tendencies and rage.  When Ree, who has come to inquire about the location of her father, asks one question too many, he lunges out of his chair and grabs Ree by the side of her head, not hitting her, but hurting her all the same. As the film progresses, Teardrop will not only become Ree’s only ally, but the one member of her immediate family aside from her younger siblings who loves and protects her.  These two important male figures in the lives of Mia and Ree prove to be more intricately drawn than the “reassuring or creepy” type that Mr. Scott depicts—they are a disturbing embodiment of both.

Mia, and even the ever-stoic Ree, also personify the “female rage” that Mr. Scott describes and take their own brand of revenge against abusive men. Mia’s revenge against Conor’s emotional and sexual abuse is especially frightening because she demonstrates that her reckless abandon goes beyond merely head-butting other teenagers.  In a bizarre but terrifying sequence, Mia kidnaps Conor’s daughter, snatching her right off her scooter and forcing her to march to cliffy seashore, where she nearly drowns.  Mia may not take an axe to Conor a la Lisbeth Salander, but she hits him where it hurts the most by invading his personal family life and staining his daughter’s innocence. Speaking of Lisbeth’s revenge on her father,  Ree also, if more symbolically, takes her own form of gruesome revenge on her already dead father not with a axe, but with a chainsaw. Ree is certainly more sympathetic to her absent father, whom she clearly still loves.  So when Ree grasps her father’s dead hands through the murky water in which his body has been dumped, and is handed a chainsaw, which she must use to cut off those hands as proof of his death,  it is a much more grueling and horrifying act than Lisbeth’s attempt at patricide.

The taciturn Ree a stark contrast to the foul-mouthed Mindy/Hit Girl of “Kick-Ass.”  Ree’s might is measured by the force and consequences of her actions and, even more so, by the thoughtfulness of her silence.  She answers every question after a long stretch of painstaking silence; you can almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Ree’s one verbal catharsis is blunt, relentless, and free of expletives.  She stridently bellows the name of the town patriarch—“THUMP MIL-TON!”—over and over again, her cries intermixing with the groaning of the cows of the auction house to where she has tracked him down.  Ree knows she will not get a reaction out of him, but she continues to holler those three syllables with dogged conviction. Ree’s verbal torrent will have grim consequences, and she knows this, and is not afraid.  When it counts, Ree uses her words, and uses them fervently.

With Mia we encounter the opposite trait: a ribald, vituperative and sometimes dangerous teenager who spits out the coarsest obscenities as if it’s her own secret language.  Above all things, Mia is a kinetic being, although her physicality is not of the action-heroine variety, such is the case with the girls of “Sucker Punch.”  An aspiring hip-hop dancer, Mia is constantly in motion, whether practicing moves alone in an empty room of an abandoned high-rise or prowling the dingy, drab streets of her town.  Mia’s physical grace is the reason why her most defining moment in “Fish Tank” is devoid of words altogether.  In a silent but tense moment of alternating confrontation and empathy, Mia and her mother dance together—not side by side, not in a loving mother-daughter embrace, but facing each other, toe-to-toe, an uncanny mirror image:

(Sorry about the weird subtitles)

Ingmar Bergman would beg to differ, but sadly, you need a bit more than cries and whispers nowadays to get by in the movie land of sexed-up-women-with-weapons. So, you foul-mouthed, pre-sexual yet inappropriately erotic superhero; you mercurial, mohawked, axe-wielder; you sword-swinging, scantily-clad prisoners of a misogynistic psycho-ward/alternate reality–Ree and Mia would like you to know that all a girl needs to get by in this cruel world is the good sense to know when to make your voice heard, and some sweet dance moves.  And perhaps, in dire circumstances, to be used only as an expression of deeply repressed female anger and grief, a chainsaw.

Work cited:

Scott, A.O., and Manohla Dargis. “Gosh, Sweetie, That’s a Big Gun.” New York Times 27 April 2011: MT1. Print.

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About Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa's film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. View all posts by Vanessa Graniello

One response to “‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Fish Tank’: Cinema’s subtle female avengers

  • lightupyourbody

    1.) Your blog looks kickass, especially now that you’ve figured out how to incorporate video clips– I think this will serve as a great addition since it gives people an idea about what you are writing about, even if they haven’t seen all of the movies mentioned.

    2.) From another writer’s standpoint, excellent use and control of language as I’m sure you know with your Master’s Degree. Especially the final paragraph. Before reading this again, I didn’t consider that the title “Cries and Whispers” might perhaps be an attempt to pre-inform viewers to pay attention to the many sexual innuendos that are subtly hinted at.

    3.) Great choice for a topic! Female exploitation in cinema is definitely something that has evolved over time but I I would have never on my own, called it to mind in this way. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts applied to the mother/wife character in “The Tree of Life.” Oppressed? Or maybe she was the only one in the family who was actually free? I’m still thinking about what she said in the beginning of the movie about the difference between Nature and Grace.

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