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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Winter's Bone can be found here.
Set in the back country of the Missouri Ozark Mountains, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is the only one caring for her 12-year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and 6-year-old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), her mother Connie (Valerie Richards) suffering from severe depression and her father Jessup out on bail for manufacturing methamphetamine. When it looks like Jessup has gone missing and will skip the trial, Ree is informed by Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) that they're going to lose their house and land because her father put it up as bail collateral. Consequently, Ree sets out to find him. Everywhere she turns, however, she is told to keep her nose out of other people's business.
Winter's Bone is a 2006 novel by American crime writer Daniel Woodrell. Many of Woodrell's books are set in the Ozarks, and he has described them as "country noir".
According to the Q&A of the original novel, "bone" means a small gift or blessing, as in the phrase "to throw someone a bone." Ree's "blessing" occurs in winter, both literally and metaphorically. The title may also come from an old Appalachian expression "like a dog digging after a winter's bone", indicating someone who, like Ree Dolly, is on a search or quest for something and will not give it up.
Everyone in that valley knew more than what they were saying. Jessup's brother Teardrop (John Hawkes) probably already knew that Jessup made a deal to "snitch" which, as he put it later, is against "our ways". However, at this point in the movie, it is unlikely that Teardrop knows that Jessup has been killed, and so he assumes that he is hiding, either from the law if he changed his mind about snitching or from Thump's gang—either way, for his life. Ree's meddling could flush him out of hiding and get him killed, so he wanted to scare her into keeping her mouth shut. It was his contention that, whatever Jessup was doing, it was his own business.
Like Teardrop, Blond Milton (William White) is angry that Ree, through her search and questions, is causing people to talk about Jessup, what might have happened to him, and why. Blond is Jessup's cousin but also is related to Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), the leader of the gang that presumably killed Jessup,. He wants Ree to stop with her investigation because it is making his family connections look bad. It is also likely that Blond was a part of Thump's gang in some way as (1) it appears that Blond knows for certain that Jessup has been murdered (otherwise he would look very foolish if Jessup turned up after his charade), and (2) his offer to raise Sonny suggests he knows that the loss of Ree's house is a foregone conclusion (i.e, the body will not be found). Fortunately, Ree was smart enough to realize that the "chin high" weeds growing in the ruins indicates that the house burned down over a year ago whereas her father has only been missing for a few weeks.
He was murdered, probably by a member of the Milton gang, because he made a deal to give evidence against other meth cookers in the area in order to avoid jail, and this fact was leaked by the sheriff before the trial. It's not known who actually killed him. However, it's almost certain that the killing was authorized by Thump Milton. Teardrop does say he knows who it was, after stating earlier that he doesn't want to know if Ree ever found out.
It isn't known who handed in the cash. One theory is that it was done under the orders of Thump Milton in order to get Jessup out of jail so that he could be killed. Another theory is that the rest of Jessup's bail was put up by a legal official as part of the deal he made.
Ree gradually realizes that Jessup is dead from many clues. Probably the first clue is when Megan (Casey MacLaren) accidentally says that she knew Jessup, using the past tense. Both Teardrop's early anger and Merab Milton's (Dale Dickey) indignant behavior when Ree disparages Thump for disregarding his own "blood" are clues that Jessup has somehow betrayed his family. Blond Milton's transparent attempt at deception is another major clue that he is dead (and probably murdered), because, even though it is clear that he is lying about the location of Jessup's death, it is unlikely he would attempt such a lie if he didn't know for certain that (a) Jessup is dead and (b) his body won't turn up. By the time Teardrop visits to tell her about Jessup's car being found, that he missed his court appearance, to offer her money, and to advise her that she sell the timber on their property, it is pretty clear that Teardrop now thinks (or even knows) that Jessup is dead as well. Finally, Ree simply doesn't believe that Jessup would leave his family in this predicament. Thus, Ree can definitely assert that Jessup is dead to bondsman Mike Satterfield (Tate Taylor) when he arrives after Jessup has missed court.
They tell her they want to put a stop to the gossip that has been going around about them. Although this gossip isn't shown in the movie, it was presumably spurred in part by Ree's original investigation, Ree's obvious bruises after her beating, and then by Teardrop's smashing of the truck window in town. People probably feel sorry for the situation Ree and her siblings are in, despite Jessup's personal "dishonor", and are blaming the Milton gang. Further, it seems that Ree's heartfelt plea for the sake of her siblings, along with the fact that Ree has not talked herself (and so shown "honor" relative to Jessup), have had an impact on Merab and she now has pity on the girl. In the end, Merab appears to genuinely want to help Ree, while preserving her family's honor, so she helps her to prove Jessup is dead but not to acquire any evidence of who killed him.
Ree takes Jessup's hands to Sheriff Baskin, claiming that they were tossed on her porch last night. He agrees to send them to the lab for identification. The next day, the bondsman stops by to give Ree the money that was used to pay Jessup's bail. Teardrop also drops by to give baby chicks to Sonny and Ashlee, then plays a tune on Jessup's banjo. Ree offers the banjo to Teardrop, but he tells her to keep it there for him and admits to her that he knows who killed Jessup but doesn't say who. In the final scene, Sonny asks Ree if she's going to leave them now that she's got money, and Ree assures him that she is not going anywhere. Ashlee hands Ree her chick, picks up Jessup's banjo, and strums the strings.
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