Disability Theory In Film; Winter’s Bone – Mental Illness & Addiction In Film


Morgain McGovern 

Identity in Film 

Spring 2021 

Mental Illness and Addiction in Film 

(Disability) 

May 18th, 2021 

Critical Race and Disability Theories Applied to Winter’s Bone 

A mentally ill mother and a criminal father is the death knell to your childhood, and may even cost you your own life, as we see in the film Winter’s Bone. This film dredged up old ghosts and reminded me of the wounds I have that I don’t think will ever heal. 

I grew up with a disabled mentally ill mother, like Ree. Like Ree, I had a criminal father who was a ghost. Because of my parent’s criminal activities, I was forced to interact with my parent’s various sleazy accomplices. Because of my parent’s choice to let criminals around their children, I had violence inflicted on me. 

My mother’s criminal record in Texas from 2005. She was also in and out of jails all my life. She also went to Federal Prison from 1992 to about 1996. I am still collecting her criminal records from various states and other countries where she was arrested and jailed and/or imprisoned.   

Drug and alcohol addiction are a component of disability and usually are accompanied by untreated mental illness. Most people who use substances are using them to feel better, to cope, to face the world, to cope with past assaults or trauma, to treat their mental health issues. It’s called self-medicating. 

 Mental Illness and addiction are disabilities, and your class and wealth are a huge factor in the quality of care you receive to recover and heal. In Winter’s Bone, the characters are trapped in poverty and have barriers to receiving treatment and support from medical professionals. They’re also involved in criminal activities, which place an unfair stigma on their children, especially Ree, who is fighting to save herself and her family from the wolves at the door.  

A component of disability is health insurance, wealth, transportation and access to medical care. Sometimes addiction disability and criminal behavior are generational, crime and substance abuse are normalized in disabled families. Poverty and ignorance and lack of access to medical care and education keep families in this cycle.  

Watching the opening scenes of Winter’s Bone set the tone of the type of yoke around Ree’s neck. The family lives in a rundown old log house in the middle of the woods. It’s country. It’s cold. Smoke rising from the log fireplace that warms the house. The logs are chopped by Ree. A neglected underfed dog chained to the ground outside, he’s a prisoner too. Kittens born, puppies found in the woods, more mouths to feed. She’s making a meal for her little brother and sister, the mother is somewhere in the back room sleeping, silent, unavailable, unable to function. Disabled. Not there. A ghost. 

As we see in Winter’s Bone, the burden of a parent’s disability (mental illness & addiction) and their crimes (Ree’s father Jessup cooks Meth and the mother enabled it) fell on the shoulders of their children. The children of the mentally ill & criminals are left to clean up the mess the mentally ill/criminal parent creates. If a child’s parents are criminals or mentally ill, the child is left defenseless against the parent’s criminal associates and left to forage for themselves when the parent falls ill and incapable of providing care for them.  

The disability component of critical race theory is evident in Winter’s Bone, as a mother’s mental illness renders her helpless and paralyzed and unable to function or care for her children. Ree’s mother doesn’t 

Have a lot of backstory in the film, they don’t delve into why she allowed her these burdens fall on her daughter’s shoulders. They don’t elaborate if the mentally ill mother was complicit in her husband’s meth making business, but I think she did know, and her mental illness may have started as a denial or rationalization without realizing how her choices as a mother would create so much trauma and danger for her children.  Ree’s mother’s choices and mental illness was why Ree was forced to carry the burden of her mother’s choices to allow criminality as a lifestyle for her family.  

Ree’s mother who was catatonic who stayed with her meth cooking husband until she was left speechless and incapacitated. The disabled in this film are seen as a problem, a stone tied to the leg of a drowning daughter, she’s a disabled mentally ill mother not worthy of a name. 

While seeking safety for myself and to get answers and closure, I had to interact with corrupt law enforcement to report the crimes I witnessed and was a victim of. 

My mother was frequently arrested for various crimes, before and after I was born. So was my father. 

Sometimes, they were arrested together because of the crimes they committed. My father would mock her later because she kept getting arrested, couldn’t clean up her act, and he had gone straight. 

My father had gotten a union job as a head carpenter for a major studio in Los Angeles. He lived in a ranch he had swindled from one of his girlfriends. We would live in motels or a house rented on a bad check and we’d move every three to four months. He paid $600 a month in child support for his ex-wife and four kids and didn’t have much contact with us. 

Later on, when I was seventeen, the police arrested my mother (again) and she was taken and put into Holloway Women’s Prison in London, I was left homeless in winter in a foreign country. They had arrested me a few days after they had arrested her and left me in a cell overnight, and then let me go when it was proven I was in school when she was committing her crimes.  

When Ree was being questioned by Sheriff Baskin about her father, it reminded me of when I was seventeen and had seasoned detectives question me without a lawyer about my mother’s criminal history, asking me where my mother was on certain dates, and was blamed as a teenager for the crimes she committed. My mother’s mental illness disability left a stamp on me. Her crimes were now my crimes, because people thought I was like her. Her yoke was around my neck, permanently. 

Like Ree, I was forced to carry the weight of my parent’s crimes. 

My mother’s drug of choice was pills. Is being a drug addict or an alcoholic a disability? My mother would become catatonic when she had her Samsonite pill case next to her bed, taking pills that she needed to knock herself out so she could live with herself. When she was dragged away by the police from me starting in toddlerhood, it became a constant threat whenever there was a knock on the door. 

In Ree’s story, a knock on the door or an unexpected visitor is a contact threat for her as well. 

Having an absent, ex-con, alcoholic, womanizing father who knowingly abandoned his children to a mentally ill unfit mother was also a parallel to my life in this film. Ree’s father Jessup was a meth cooker, a good one apparently, but a ghost. Nobody knew where he was. Did he jump bail? Was he coming home tonight? Was he out at the bar? My father would be gone months at a time, sometimes on a theatre tour, sometimes off shooting a film, sometimes living at one of his girlfriend’s apartments when fatherhood and being a husband got to be too difficult for him. 

As a woman who struggles with mental health issues myself, I understand having a nervous breakdown and at the same time, I understand that I make choices to improve my mental health and to make the choice to seek treatment to care for myself. I’m fortunate though, I have free mental healthcare now and at the time this film was made, or in the setting of this film, I don’t think they had any free mental health care in the Ozarks of Missouri.  

They probably still have limited mental health care resources for the people living in poverty in the Ozarks, and a significant factor in this film was the luxury of having a car. They had no car. If you have no car and live in the wilderness far from a town with a psychiatrist (if you can afford one) and a drugstore for medicine (if you can afford mental health medicine) is almost impossible. These are the logistics of living in a poor rural area, and the stigma of Ree’s mother’s mental health is used as a weapon against Ree in this film. 

The meth cooking criminal father and mentally ill mother made the choice to place the consequences of their actions on the shoulders of their seventeen-year-old daughter, Ree. Ree’s mother didn’t make the choice to have a mental illness, but she chose to live with her husband who was cooking meth, and she knew she placed her children in danger by doing so. She made the choice to not seek mental health treatment before she collapsed. 

I say choice because at some point in the backstory, the mother knew the father was cooking meth and made the decision to stay with him and not seek mental health treatment and knew she was placing her children in a dangerous situation. The father made the choice to cook meth as his source of income. The father placed his children in a dangerous situation and later his choices brutalized his daughter and almost cost Ree her life. 

Because the mother decided to not seek mental help before she spiraled into a catatonic state, she became so sick that by the time she collapsed, and her husband’s illness & bad choices caught up to her, Ree’s mother was unable to function and left her children defenseless and destitute and open to exploitation and violence. 

Throughout the film, people constantly remind Ree that her mother is a nutcase and use it as a weapon to dehumanize Ree. They don’t offer any solutions to help the disabled mother nor report the two younger children, Sonny aged twelve and Ashlee aged six to social services. 

 Everyone looks the other way, because most of the people in Ree’s family or circle are criminals or relatives of criminals or distrust law enforcement, or they don’t want to get involved.  

Mentally ill people are portrayed and treated in film as either a villainess or a disposable character or the one who causes the problems. Mental illness itself is group of disabled people who are systematically exploited and vilified in film, I have not seen a lot of films where mentally ill women are portrayed as the hero who ends up winning at the end. 

  • “ As Martin Norden has shown, disabled characters on film seemingly must reveal a ‘spiritual’ attribute that makes their disability tragic because of their ‘suffering’ (e.g the “Tragic Victim’’ or the “Saintly Sage”), or somehow heightens their dignity and goodness (e.g. the “Sweet Innocent” or “Noble Warrior”).*8 In discussing how one is defined who is –or is not- disabled, Mary Johnson writes, “ The real clue as to whether someone is truly disabled is if we feel sorry for them for being that way; if we are secretly horrified at the prospect of being like that ourselves.” 

Does labeling a person mentally ill absolve the police of their duty, does it make the crimes inflicted on the mentally ill less of a threat because disabled people are considered disposable to society?  

When a woman comes forward and publicly names her abuser (who may be in a position of power) or reports a crime she’s witnessed, or she publicly criticizes law enforcement or politicians who might be harmed personally or financially by her accusations, the first line of action from those in power is to discredit her or label her as mentally ill. If she’s mentally ill, she’s not to be believed or trusted or even acknowledged. She’s not credible. Labeling a woman mentally ill is the fastest & most powerful way to silence, discredit and destroy a person who might be seen as a problem to law enforcement. 

As we see in Winter’s Bone, the corrupt Sheriff Baskin warns Ree that he didn’t back down, in the end. 

He wanted to silence her before she told anyone of his weakness when her uncle Teardrop confronted him when he was pulled over. 

Law enforcement or the accused predators will say the victim is mentally ill and therefore law enforcement or people in positions of power have a way to not be legally or financially responsible for their actions or negligence or coverup. 

In this story, law enforcement is seen as corrupt and negligent. Sheriff Baskin knew that defenseless children were living in squalor with a mother who was unable to care for them. He didn’t call social services. He knew the father was a meth cooker who was missing and believed he had skipped town.  

We find out later in the film the Sheriff is the one who leaked information that Jessup turned informant on his Meth making relatives, which caused his murder.  The Sheriff knew that a seventeen-year-old girl was the only caregiver for the children and that they were in a dangerous situation where they didn’t have enough food and were being neglected. The children were seen sleeping on a sofa as their beds, they didn’t seem to have a bedroom of their own. They had no food. They slept in the living room. 

Ree had to give away her horse to the neighbor because they couldn’t afford hay for her. The neighbor brought over a small supply of food for Ree and her family, but nobody called social services. Nobody offered to take her to get food stamps, nobody offered to take the catatonic mother to see a doctor. They were trapped in poverty and destitution, with no way out. 

Then, the bail bondsman shows up to tell Ree that her father Jessup had used the home as collateral for his bond and that if he skips his court date, they would be out on the street in a week. He stated that a stranger came in and paid cash for the rest of the bond. 

Ree sets off in pursuit of her father, to make sure he makes it to court, so they don’t lose their home. 

On her journey, she’s in danger and forced to deal with her father’s violent criminal associates & relatives. Her Uncle Teardrop assaults her, for asking where he is and tells her to stop searching further, and takes her to an old meth lab explosion where weeds are growing and tells her he died in the explosion. Ree sees the weeds growing and realizes the site was an explosion from months ago, not recently. 

She goes to her father’s criminal accomplices, who are her relatives, and asks them where Jessup is and asks to speak to the local crime lord, Thump Milton, and he refuses to see her. His women relatives are cold and harsh towards her and warn her to stop looking for her father. 

Ree goes to her friend and asks to borrow her husband’s truck so she can go to the Arkansas line and look for her father. The husband refuses. 

Ree is in deeper and deeper layers of danger as she searches for her criminal father and throughout the story goes through twists and turns until we discover finally, at the end, that the Sheriff had leaked that Ree’s father Jessup became an informant to law enforcement, his meth making relatives found out, and killed him. They buried his body under a log in a lake.  

Ree’s meth making relatives showed up at her house towards the end of the film, because they knew the bail bondsman was going to take Ree’s family’s house and farm and leave them homeless, so they put a bag over her head and drove her to the lake where her father’s body was tucked under a log. 

Ree’s meth making female cousins row Ree out in a rowboat under cover of a dark cold night, and make her grab his cold bloated hands under the log and try to make her chainsaw her father’s hands off in order to have proof to show the Sheriff and bail bondsman that he was truly dead.  

Ree is so traumatized by this she is unable to use the chainsaw to cut off her father’s hands, so her relatives, who were his murderers, cut off his hands with a chainsaw, so she would have proof to give to law enforcement of his death.  

Ree shows up to the Sheriff Baskin’s office the next day with her dead father’s hands and told him that someone threw her father’s hands on the porch in the middle of the night.  

Jessup is declared dead and then the bail bondsman shows up at her house to tell her that the stranger who put down cash as part of Jessup’s bail was not going to come back for his money and it rightfully belongs to Ree. The Horatio Alger myth comes alive again in Winter’s Bone.  

Winter’s Bone (2010) Director: Debra Granik / Screenplay: Anne Rosellini, Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell  

Sources: Nicole Markotić  

Page 8  

Revue Canadienne d’Études cinématographiques / Canadian Journal of Film Studies 

Vol. 17, No. 1, SPECIAL ISSUE ON FILM AND DISABILITY (spring · printemps 2008), pp. 2-10 

PUNCHING UP THE STORY: Disability And Film  

My mother’s prison photos & criminal history records are from the Texas Department of Public Safety.  

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