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Knowing the Real in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone



Le film Winter’s Bone (2010) de Debra Granik raconte l’histoire de Ree Dolly et de son refus d’abandonner sa quête pour retrouver son père, disparu de la communauté clanique des montagnes Ozark. Malgré les injonctions des membres de son clan, et la correction que lui infligent les femmes du groupe, elle refuse de se taire et persiste à poser des questions gênantes. Elle est animée par le désir de sauver la maison familiale, hypothéquée par le père pour assurer sa sortie de prison, mais aussi par la volonté d’élever son frère et sa sœur, le père étant absent, et la mère ayant perdu la raison. Ce chemin passera par sa rencontre avec le ‘père mort’ après quoi Big Man, figure du pouvoir dans le clan, finira par lui témoigner une forme de respect. L’analyse de ce film sera structurée par un questionnement autour de la figure du père et de la position féminine occupée par Ree : par sa loyauté au clan (son « sang ») et à son père, Ree peut être considérée comme une figure féminine forte qui, comme Antigone, ne cèdera pas sur son désir.

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1The movie Winter’s Bone is an independent film, made in the Missouri Ozark mountains, covering the lives, the ways and means of the mountain people there, particularly the Dolly clan. The film explores the fate of Ree Dolly and her family. Her father has disappeared and has put the family house up as bond for his release from a potential jail sentence. Ree seeks her father everywhere and no one in the Dolly clan will tell her where he is. She takes her quest to the final limit and finds him dead. She is able to save her home and her family (her mother, and siblings) when his body is given to her by the Dolly women and she cuts off his hands, thus proving to the Court that he is, in fact, dead and that his fingerprints prove this. His hands are “winter’s bones,” like the remnants of past seasons uncovered and revealed when the snow melts.

2The film catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to fame and won the Sundance Festival prize in 2011. A Southern Gothic film based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, it was directed and adapted by Debra Granik in 2010. The excitement produced by this low-budget movie, which was nominated for four Oscars, is not attributable to the ultimate reunion of Ree Dolly, sixteen years old, with her brother Sonny, age 12 and her sister, Ashlee, age 6, in their own home/house. The power of the film is due, I argue, to the real that is invoked concerning the honor code among people who live outside the norms of societal law, to the mysterious powerful bonds of motherhood–one aspect of what Jacques-Alain Miller calls the “feminine at the limit” (“The Feminine”), and to the desire of the mysterious and silent Big Man in the film. I will therefore propose an analysis of the film in dialogue with these notions: the function of the real in the establishment of the norms of the symbolic; ‘motherhood’ reframed as an effect of the ‘feminine at the limit’; and the place held by Big Man, especially in the recognition of Ree’s self-affirmation within that part of a woman’s position which includes the masculine, or in other words, in her hysterical difference from the other women in the clan.

The Real, the Father, and the Law of the Cultural Other

  • 1 I argue this point in “Approaching the Real of the Borromean Knot by a Knotting of the Impossible R (...)

3The real, in Lacan’s terms, is that which is impossible to conceive and, often, impossible-to-bear.1 The Lacanian real is a realm no other theory explored before him. It is that which governs everyone’s life and that which is unbearable to know. It is the realm of trauma and radical repression, the sphere of fantasies and jouissance. Lacan even says that all language is a defense against the real. The real is that which literature and film treat, not as supposed fiction, but as the ciphering of unbearable truths about life. Otherwise, this movie would take its extra dimension of effect only from imaginary soap-opera traits being shown in the lives of people too poor to feed themselves. That perspective would make the film into some kind of melodrama or cynical commentary on poor people. Rather, it becomes a work of praise given to an Antigone-like character, Ree Dolly, who refuses to give up on taking care of her brother and sister, their father having disappeared and their mother having gone mad from the scars and sorrows of the life she led in the mountain community which makes its money from cooking and selling crystal methadone. In other words, her whole family lives as criminals, bound to each other outside the law, on the side of the beyond the social that one can call the real. I compare Ree to Antigone in the sense that she will not give up on family, even though she will not betray her clan for the murder they have committed either. Ree, like Antigone, will not give up on her desire. Lacan argues in Seminar VII that Antigone’s aura comes from her refusal to relinquish her desire and just fit in with the normative group of the Other, including her sister, all of whom are urging her to do just that. Antigone says in a disputed passage in the play that bears her name that one can have another husband, another child, but one whose parents are dead, as hers are, cannot have another brother. She can have no other brothers than the one she has. Ree Dolly confronts and battles the real in every aspect of her life. Her mother is crazy. Her sister and brother are young. She wants to raise them, even though other members of her clan are trying to take the boy from her. No one will talk about what Jessup Dolly has done or where he can be found. Silence is a key signifier in this film. But Ree continues to search and to talk although her whole clan has told her to be quiet. Her quest is for the truth of the real, not some semblance or appearance which will temporarily appease everyone.

4I wish to penetrate to the marrow of this film to see why it ended up having such an impact on its viewers, and on the film community that has acclaimed this production. It is not only Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that gives the film its power, but the fact that something beyond normative social engagements are in play. As outside the symbolic norms, inarticulable within the social sphere, they belong to the Lacanian real. The interplay of the mountain people and the Law of the cultural Other – that is, the conventions followed by any given community at a specific historical moment – is ongoing throughout the movie. In the beginning, Ree is making breakfast for her brother and sister who are feeding the dogs and she is also combing her crazy mother’s hair. This scene is juxtaposed to images of the Missouri Guard shown practicing military moves, along with depictions of farm scenes.

  • 2 Cf. Jacques-Alain Miller’s “A Nonexistent Seminar” on this point.

5The Lacanian concept of the signifier for the Father’s Name – a function that can be embodied by anyone who is in power, be it father, mother, wife, sister, priest, etc.–will play a key role throughout this film. The Law of the normative Other – as law-abiding citizen – is contrasted to the Big Man who controls the lawless mountain community. There are also numerous versions of the signifier for the phallic function – that is, the functions that control a person or a group – as Jacques-Alain Miller has shown. That is, there is not simply one key person who takes on the power. There are many imaginary “fathers” who determine the outcome of a conflict. There is no THE Father whose law would be all-powerful, except as a myth that could be explained by Jacques Lacan’s sexuation graph.2 Lacan argued in Seminar XX that one could reread Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) to understand the founding of cultural law as a structural function that requires that one believe there is an exception to the law in order to found law itself. Freud argued that society came from the brothers bonding together under law after having murdered their greedy Ur-father who claimed all the goods and women for himself. Such a mythical Ur-father would serve as the logical step necessary to comprehending the need for law at all. Freud argues that the brothers felt guilty and, thus, constructed the social law of sharing; only by feeling guilt over murdering the father is social law born, Freud will argue. However, Lacan finds a logic, not a myth, there. The logic is that there can be no conception of an Ur-father as an omnipotent Father/Man/God except insofar as this myth is necessary for the structuring of law in the first place. Lacan maintains, rather, in Seminar XX that the social itself demands the idea of one who is more powerful than all the others, an exception. And this function applies to teachings as diverse as Plato’s idea that when seeking the perfect form, one will always stumble before the reality of perfection itself. Plato argued, thus, that the perfect form can only be an ideal. This ideal would be another version of an exception to The law of the Father as all powerful, an example of the impasse of the real. The point is that there can be no signifier for a law of the Father’s Name without the concept of an exception at the starting point of thinking about social laws.

  • 3 Jacques-Alain Miller on Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire VI (1958-1959): Le désir et son interprétation; (...)

6This, for Lacan, is the logic that occurs on the masculine side of sexuation where one lives out the effects of being different from the mother from the time one takes on language and images by which to represent him or herself. This is not a gender-based argument, but rather, one in which one lives out the effects of being subjected to “a strong cultural injunction … to identify away from the maternal and the feminine” (Ragland-Sullivan, “The Sexual Masquerade” 50) that sets up a certain relation to castration (the lack-in-being All One). Feminine logic identifies with a logic of sameness and dwells closer to the real than the masculine which is identified with the symbolic sphere of difference – law and language. While there are various symbolic fathers for any given person, there are also numerous imaginary fathers in any person’s life – that is, functions or structures that impose difference and Otherness on an individual. Some of the imaginary fathers in Winter’s Bone are represented as the signifiers for “blood” or kinship; the mountain men and women who shun Ree in her quest to find her father; the missing father himself; the mountain women who have power; and especially Ree’s Uncle Teardrop. Of course the main phallic signifiers are the normative symbolic sphere cultural Law versus the Big Man who lives outside the law of the norm. While some women also take on the function of chief phallic signifiers in the community, I see them as enacting the desire of the men. This is my view of the role played by the women. They all dance to the tune of what the Big Man says should happen. The point to be made clear in my interpretation is that I am not talking about an imaginary father one calls “Daddy,” but a function of the effects of controlling the power in any given situation. I shall explain this in terms of Jacques-Alain Miller’s recent rereading of the role of desire and fantasy in the Father’s Name signifier, based on his interpretation of Seminar VI, Desire and its Interpretation.3

The Feminine at the Limit

7In Winter’s Bone Ree is shunned by all her friends and relatives. She finally says to the Big Man ‘Thump’) that they are all “blood” somehow and is that not what they have always told each other? “Blood” becomes a master signifier – an S1 or in other words, a major theme –throughout the movie, even in a confrontation with the Law where it turns out that the Sheriff is “kin” to the Dolly clan, but he has gone legitimate. And he backs down before Uncle Teardrop’s refusal to submit to his power, later telling Ree that he only backed down because she was in the truck, thus trying to hide his fear of Drop. She, of course, does not believe him, his cowardice having been only too evident.

  • 4 Cf. Ragland, Jacques Lacan & the Logic of Structure.
  • 5 This ‘right’ makes no sense in Capitalist America where the right to domain does not exist. But man (...)

8What happens when “blood” turns against “blood”? Ree is an example of this. She carries out the Lacanian/Antigonian law of not ceasing to speak in an attempt to inscribe her words/desire in the community. That which does not stop not writing itself is the Lacanian impossible, the real in its sheer power and purity (SXX 59). In other words, some things exist without being susceptible of description and explanation. And how is this realm demonstrated in the film? It is through what Lacan calls the pact of speech, the effort to tell the truth in speaking to an other, the desire to establish a testimonial bond so powerful that the root of the word itself comes from “testis,” the Latin word for “balls” (SIII 37-40). It is in this that Antigone’s power lay. She would not stop trying to defend her brother, her kin, her blood, the impossible to say which goes right up to the fact that she did not want his soul to wander, eternally damned. This is why Antigone, even though she dies, triumphs over King Creon who lives. She dies with honor and he lives on in shame, a passionless robot.4 Her honor is that of fidelity and truth as opposed to compromise and surviving in the ‘middle of the road’. To relate this theory to Winter’s Bone, one can say that Ree too will not stop speaking to and about her kin. She is not looking for her father Jessup Dolly in some sort of “lost little girl” way. She is looking for a way to take care of a sick mother and her young siblings. She is fighting for the right to have shelter.5 When it comes to the right to eat, she shows her young siblings how to skin and disembowel a squirrel so they can eat it, even if they are frightened and squeamish. She shows them how to shoot, how to survive on nothing. And she teaches them not to beg for food, saying that one should not ask for what should be offered. Fortunately, some of the women bring her food.

  • 6 Cf. Lacan, “The Imaginary Function of the Ego and the Discourse of the Unconscious,” Seminar II 109 (...)

9The Law of the normative Other continually disrupts Ree’s efforts to find her missing father, Jessup Dolly. They come to tell her that he is out of jail, but not out of trouble. They accuse him of cooking crystal methamphetamine and Ree fires back that they have never proved this. She also stands her ground against the mountain kin who will not tell her where her father is and who accused him of having burned down a building where they cook the methamphetamine by making a bad batch. She says with pride that the burning happened over a year ago and her father had never made a bad batch. Her point is that her father could not have been involved at that moment in time with a burning of the cooking shed. Furthermore, she takes pride in the idea that he never made a bad batch of the drug such that he would burn it. When the Law asks her why she does not give in and stop looking for her father, telling her she should simply sell the house he has put up for his jail bond, she answers that she is “buttered and bre(a)d Dolly.” It is this courage that leads the Big Man, we can only assume, to pay for the difference between what her house is worth and what the Court would make in buying it and then reselling it. Of course, the Big Man does not let Ree know that he has this kind of respect for her fidelity to family and to the honor code by which her community lives. When she finally does speak to the Big Man at a country dance, she says to him that she has two children that need to be raised – and that she will not give Sonny away to the couple who have asked for him – and a sick mother to take care of. She cannot do this without a place of shelter, a home which is actually a shack, a shack like the ones all the mountain people live in. Moreover, she only speaks to the Big Man after she has been badly beaten up by the powerful women in the community. Earlier when she tried to speak to him at his home, he told his wife that speaking creates witnesses and he does not want any of those. We see here again the power that Lacan gives to speech, a power beyond that of written language, the power of a law that carries the real with it and all the pain and desolation that “by-talk (Gerede)” as Heidegger called it, can produce. Speech, in other words, is that which establishes the identities we have that are determined from before birth by what is said about us and from the start of life from what our immediate others (ideal egos) and the Other (the social realm) say about us. That is who we become.6 We do not speak in order to say nothing Lacan claims in Seminar III (37). We speak to try to find a place of trust and safety, to avoid the evil eye of the Other, and the stark realization that there is no Other of the Other, no transcendental meaning beyond our own perceptions and words.

10About the time of her beating, Uncle Teardrop (‘Drop’, played by John Hawkes), becomes central to the denouement of Ree’s fate. She says to him that she might as well quit looking for her father. He’s dead, she pronounces: “I’m a Dolly, bre(a)d and buttered and that’s how I know Dad is dead.” At the moment of this realization, Ree, in despair, goes to her mother for help. But her mother cannot say even one word to help her. When Ree and Drop speak to the Big Man at the country party, Drop says to him that even when they did what they did to Jessup – i.e. kill him–he made no stink and that he is sure Ree will not either. So, says the Big Man, you are standing in for her. Here one sees the power of the spoken word, of the debt incurred in supporting the other when no one else will. Drop says yes and later tells Ree that she is on him now and that if she finds out who killed her father, she must not tell him. He was my brother, after all, says Teardrop. Here we are talking about the power of the spoken word as itself being a bond, a “gentleman’s word” as it was called in the recent past of Western parlance.

  • 7 One of the horrors confronted by psychoanalysis is that mothers, without knowing it, can love their (...)

11At this point the mountain women come to Ree and tell her that they – who had not only beaten her up, but also considered she had herself to blame – they “put the hurt on her, not the men.” It is easy to believe that there is some power of the matriarchy at work here, as some feminists might argue. But I interpret it otherwise. The livelihood of the women depends upon their men making and selling crystal methadone. The men are not giving in to Ree, but they do not want to hurt her physically. To try to stop Ree, the women force the drama forward by beating her badly. The women, in other words, are carrying out the Father’s Desire, realizing for them their fantasy that the Ree problem just disappear. And I sense, as well, that the men, as represented in the film, do not want to do bodily harm to a woman with children in her care. They just want Ree to be quiet. It is only after this that the Big Man decides to listen to her talk. Ree’s commitment to her family is honorable and as strong as iron. She becomes the mother as nurturer, giver, teacher. Such a mother is quite different from the one often found in psychoanalysis, the one who, often without knowing it, ravages her children.7

  • 8 Cf. Lacan, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, (...)

12Moreover, most of the mountain people take cocaine and methamphetamine. Ree refuses these drugs when Drop offers them to her, thus setting herself apart, saying she has never gotten the taste for it. Perhaps this refusal is meant as a rejection of the mountain people’s code. My view is that it has more to do with Ree’s seeing herself as the actual ”mother” who spends a lot of time teaching her brother and sister spelling and math, as well as everyday survival skills. She is also maternal to her own sick mother and protects her fiercely when the police try to talk with the “woman of the house.” Ree knows that she signifies that place: the place of the mother marked by a bonding between mother – daughter, sister, grandmother, any primary caretaker – and child, marked in language as lalangue or primordial murmurings – and she does not hesitate to take it. It may be supposed that Ree’s own mother did a good job in the early years of raising her children because none of them manifests incapabilities or emotional problems. If the paternal signifier marks the child for the difference away from the mother necessary for the child to enter the Other as a “free” agent, this does not obliterate the primordial layer of knowledge which comes from primary nurture, usually given by a mother. Here the child is the object, not only of language, but of the gaze, the voice, the breast, the feces, all the primary objects-of-desire that end up as the four partial drives Lacan calls oral, anal, invocatory, and scopic.8 Ree is not the mother of her siblings, but she becomes the embodied substitute who occupies the space left vacant by her mother’s madness; by occupying it, she keeps that space ‘alive’ for her sibling ‘others’.

13Although the film moves relentlessly forward from uncertainty to certainty about Jessup Dolly’s fate, the whereabouts of his corpse remains a mystery. There is a short interim in the film, filmed in black and white, showing a squirrel running as if frightened, jumping from tree to tree. Ree is just days away from losing her house and having to go, as Drop puts it, “to the city dump.” At this point, the Big Man’s wife and some of her friends come to Ree with a solution to her problems. They know she can only save her house by proving that her father is dead, not a “runner.” They take her to the middle of a pond and find a spot where they say he is. They try to get Ree to pull her father’s bones up into the boat, but she cannot do it. The women pull up one hand and saw it off, an act that horrifies Ree. Then they pull up the other hand and saw it off. Ree is able at this point to take the two hands which contain her father’s finger prints to the Court where they acknowledge that she will not lose her home. Drop tells her that her father loved his family too much, that that was his weakness, and, thus, he was turning against a criminal way of life towards the Law. When Ree asks Drop why he stood in for her, he answers “because you’re not dumb,” meaning that she knew the code of her people and would live by it. In other words, she has not sided, as her father did, with the normative law of the Other, the police. She does what she has to to save her home and family, but remains faithful to her clan which lives outside the norms of social law.

The Quest-ion of the Hysteric

14Jennifer Lawrence was originally refused for the part of Ree because she was considered too pretty to play the role of a desperate mountain girl. Lawrence insisted that she could play the part. Indeed, she is never portrayed in the film as beautiful, sexual, or seductive, nor are any of the other women. The power of her character, I would argue, comes not from any cultural standard of femininity, but from her fidelity to the bloodline into which she was born. One might say that the Father’s Name signifier for Ree is “blood,” for within this context, she is chiefly faithful to her maternal role. Lacan has said that the feminine lies at the limit of meaning. He shows the closeness of the feminine to the real in his sexuation graph (SXX 78).

). She is not bound to the law by a logical universal, founded on the exception. She is Not All in the symbolic. Lacan writes the function of the absence of an exception in relation to the phallic signifier as a double negation, a logical impossibility: . This – that there is no exception to the law – cannot be written in the real of the unconscious. Rather, there must be an exception for one to conceptualize law. In other words, there must be castration. Thus women, who are in the symbolic, but not-all in it, are at an existential distance from its binding force, as I will now argue.

15Ree dwells partially on the masculine side of sexuation which constitutes the conventions followed by a given symbolic dimension. She does this by acting as the equal of the men in her clan, as one who does not back down before them. At the same time, she embodies the discordential logic in play in sexuation, a logic which places the feminine on the side of the real and within the contradictory logic of having one foot in the symbolic sphere (Φx) and the other in the feminine (Øx). This matheme means simply that woman is, but is not completely, within the frame that tries to frame her. She is not bound in her “being” to normative law. This means that women are “not all” under the exigencies of the symbolic with its rules and requirements. The one who chooses the feminine side for identity – male or female – lives just beyond the realm of the necessary in a given symbolic realm which allows them a paradoxical freedom from the rigorous rules that constitute the masculine. This is why Lacan argued that psychoanalytic cure dwells on the side of the “not all” in the logic of the treatment, be it for a male or female.

  • 9 Cf. Ragland, “Lacan’s Theory of Sublimation: A New Look at Sophocles’ Antigone,” 1-32.

16In Winter’s Bone, Ree embodies this paradoxical logic of freedom in her refusal to submit to the injunctions of the male order based on the ‘exceptional’ Big Man. She even tells the women who beat her that they can kill her if they want, but she will not relinquish her search for her father. She refuses the signifier – “let sleeping dogs lie” – in favor of destroying the semblance of truth inferred by her clan. She speaks truth to the powerful. In this she is reminiscent of feminine/masculine characters such as Antigone and Joan of Arc.9 She refuses to accept a certain castration, refuses the typical feminine response of going along with the men, as the other mountain women do. Basically she is saying to the men that, where her ethical being is at stake, they do not have the phallus. She does. She is not saying she is the phallus, as are the Law or the Big Man, but that she has the phallic power to not be subdued. And this resides in her refusal to stop questioning her fate.

Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (chapter 2). The hysteric is the honorable woman who is identified both with the fathers and brothers and also with the feminine: this split in her identity gives her the particular structure of being a hysteric. Unlike Ree’s mother and the other women Ree does not accept the feminine logic of submission to the Father’s law and to his desire. The hysteric is always, Lacan (and others) maintain, subversive. She does not mean to be a troublemaker, but her identification with the lack-in-being in the place of conscious agent of speech and perception puts her on the side of the question, rather than on the side of the answer which seeks to avoid conflict. Strangely, this puts the hysteric not only on the masculine side of identification with the men, but also on the feminine side of sexuation.10 Yet, Ree does not resolve the problem of the sexual difference by being “feminine.” The hysteric, indeed, is often perceived as masculine because she speaks out, she argues, she will not be quiet. Lacan writes the structure of her discourse in these mathemes: -→ S1-→S2. What this means is that in the place of the speaking being she identifies with castration or the lack-in-being () and aims her discourse at the other who would anchor her being, as a master signifier (S1). Below the bar of the conscious realm, she identifies with the surplus value of jouissance – the knowledge that “truth” or “getting what one wants” rules the activities and behavior of individuals and produces the unconscious knowledge (S2) that jouissance is the prime mover in human (mis)communications (a). In other words, the game of life and the quest for identity – what Lacan calls the object a–and one’s place within the social realm come from the unconscious, caught as it is in the drive of the gaze and the voice – how we are seen and heard by others who judge us. Indeed, Lacan praised hysterics, not as revolutionaries, but as those who dwell closer to the unconscious “truth” the analyst seeks than those who speak either the master or university discourses who either repress this “truth,” in the case of the master discourse, or relegate it to a place of unaddressed knowledge, in university parlance.11
  • 12 Cf Miller’s lesson of March 15, 1995 in his seminar, Silet: L’orientation lacanienne.

17In Winter’s Bone, given the persistence of Ree’s quest to find her father, one could erroneously suppose that her love and allegiance belongs to him. Yet, it is clear that her elected signifier for the Father’s name is the clan itself: in the mode of imaginary transfer, Ree adheres to the honor code of her community. This is evidenced by Ree’s repetitive insistence that she can be trusted not to tell the Law that her kinfolk have murdered her father because she knows the social code of the clan, indeed, better than her father did.12 Twice she repeats, “I was buttered and bre(a)d Dolly.” This is a code her father taught her even though he strayed away from it.

From the Ur-Father to the Father’s Desire

18One could argue that the impact of this film comes from Ree’s wish to provide shelter and food for her sick mother and young brother and sister. But Miller shows that Lacan also made a disjunction between repetition of a signifier and the drive in Seminar XI. What drives Ree? She is clearly driven by something beyond the usual wish to remain engaged in the games of appearance and sham that keep the truths of the real at bay. The goal of people, Lacan argues, is to shut off the void at the center of being and knowing (Ø) in the conscious domain. Ree’s desire is actualized by the fact that she will not give up, will not stay silent. She is willing to die if necessary in order to find out what happened to her father and in an effort to keep her family intact; she wants to know. Yet she is driven by multiple things, not only the desire to know what has actually happened to her father, and the nurturing tendencies she feels towards her family. She is driven, more powerfully, I would say by the desire to remain One with her community, with her kin, her “blood.” She has no desire to tell the Law (i.e. the state police) about her father’s betrayal of the clan (he turned informant to the Sheriff to avoid getting into trouble with the Law). Indeed, Teardrop lets us know that the one who turned her father in for making crystal meth was the Sheriff himself who was also part of the kinship structure of the mountain people. That is why Drop refused the Sheriff’s demand that he get out of his truck, and put his shotgun across his lap, thereby letting it be known that he would shoot his betraying “brother” if necessary. So what is Ree’s desire beyond the desire to have the power to structure her own fate and her family’s? Are the repeated efforts on her part aimed at knowledge of the intolerable truth of the real? Freud, as Lacan reads him, argued that desire is indestructible. Miller reads Seminar XI to show that “the enactment of the reality of the unconscious” (Lacan, SXI, 146) is caused by the sexual real at the level of desire or libido (Miller L’orientation 5): Libido is a feature of the symbolic, as well as the real (9) and repetition opens up the unconscious. Yet repetition does not open up the unconscious in some final revelation of truth. Rather, repetition is conjoined to the lost object – that which keeps lack and loss present in life – and as such just misses connecting with the unbearable real.

19Ree’s problem regarding losing her home is solved by the mountain women who take her in a boat into the middle of a pond where they find her father’s bones, allowing Ree to prove her father’s death and keep her home. The surprise turn at the end of the film occurs when the forces of the Law come to Ree’s house and give her a bundle of money. The money is the difference between what her house was worth and what she owed them and they tell her that some man has paid the difference: this is not overtly stated in the film, but is implied. The police say they have taken their cut and the rest is hers. This act, the giving of the money that will reward, rather than punish her perseverance, can only have been carried out by the mysterious Big Man, the one who remains the silent power behind the film, the one whose unlawful laws the mountain women follow. Big Man’s power in the film comes from his having the clout to make the rules that all the others must obey. Theoretically, he is like the Ur-father I mentioned earlier, the one who stands outside the limits of social Law and imposes the limits of his group himself. He is the master signifier in the film, the Ur-father in Freudian terms, the exception to the rule in Lacanian terms.

Winter’s Bone? I have already argued that the women in this film are all desexualized in the sense that they are not made to appear desirable. But it is not at this level that sexuality intervenes in the film’s argument. According to Miller, the unconscious, transference, repetition, and drive, are all connected by sexual reality (L’orientation 9), and Lacanian drive theory teaches that there are four partial drives: the oral, the anal, the scopic, and the invocatory (Lacan “Subversion of the Subject” 692-93). Ree’s drives may be seen as tied to the oral drive, the one that seeks nurture and safety, and the scopic drive which seeks to position a subject in a certain way within the gaze of the Other. She wants to be seen as one of the group, one who will not turn on their illegal life style, as one of them, as “blood.” She lacks this certainty of belonging to the community at the level where she is a lacking subject, an which Miller equates with being (9). At the level of the Father’s Name signifier taken in its classical sense, the will of the father signifier is a symbolic requisite that some act be committed. Miller demonstrates, however, that it is not some wooden law commanding power that is in play in the Father’s Name signifier, but the Father’s Desire. What does s/he want? The speaking being must come up with a subjective answer to the desire of the other. But this riddle cannot be answered as such. And he demonstrates this by recounting the dream of the dead father taken from Lacan’s text. A son has taken care of his sick father for months on end. He is tired and weary. After his father dies, he dreams repeatedly that his father is dead but did not know it. The dream becomes so burdensome that he goes to see Freud about it. Freud, of course, thought that it was an unconscious wish for his father to die because he himself was so fatigued from caring for him. Lacan sees something else there. He sees that the son has never before encountered death. And what Miller makes of this is that the first real encounter with the death of an intimate produces a mortal shock – a major castration. The son’s desire, then, was that his father not die. He did not know that he still wanted his father alive, or in other words, that death not be. His dream is a repetition of the real fact that death is incomprehensible and unbearable (Miller L’être et l‘Un). This unfathomable truth is the same one Ree encounters when she cannot bring herself to saw off her father’s hands. He is truly dead – the real, the impossible.
  • 13 Discussion heard at the Ragtime Cinema in Columbia, Missouri.
  • 14 Only the French edition has this reference in its postface.

20Repetition, says Miller (Le Désir 12), is an equivalent of knowledge for Lacan (S2). And it is founded on the surplus jouissance that flows under the signifier as meaning. Thus, the Father’s Desire comes into play in relation to the death drive and in relation to sexual reality. The death drive is involved insofar as an actual death is involved: is, indeed, the centerpiece around which the film moves towards its gothic conclusion in a pond, and a potential death insofar as the community risks its own dismantling and death if Ree tells the Law that her kinfolk have committed murder. They finally decide to trust her, not just because Drop is going to “stand in for her,” but because, I would argue, the Big Man has come to respect her fidelity to family and kin. I would go further and argue that his silence and immanent power in the community bespeak not only a respect on his part for Ree, but a very repressed sexual desire for her. “Re-spect” itself means to look again, to take a second view. And respect is a part of what makes us love and desire another. Respect means not simply putting labels on one another and sticking with comfortable imaginary interpretations, but, rather, looking at the singularity of each subject in terms of his or her suffering in life. In this sense, I would say that sexuality – that is, respect that can cause the libido to feel desire for another – is not absent from the film,13 but is the jouissance underlying the movement of the whole story, ultimately materialized in the form of hard cash. The link between desire and respect is not obvious, but is implicit in the seeing of someone as they truly are in their struggles with the hazards of trying to “be” a worthy subject. In psychoanalytic terms, one can see a transference of the Big Man onto Ree, not just because she is a pretty young girl, but because he is moved by her courage. Transference closes the unconscious, Lacan says. Miller, in his postface to Seminar XI14, says that at that point one finds desire, fantasy, jouissance, drive – all the things that Lacan says make up human “ontology” out of an “hontology” or a sexuality and desire that make us creatures of embarrassment and shame, such that jouissance is/can be seen as the prime mover of being.

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Freud, Sigmund. “Analysis, Terminable and Interminable” SE, vol. 23. 211-53. London: The Hogarth Press, 1986. Print.

---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), SE, vol. 18. 1-64. London: The Hogarth Press, 1986. Print.

---. Totem and Taboo (1913), SE, vol. XIII. London: The Hogarth Press, 1986. ix-162. Print.

Granik, Debra. Winter’s Bone. Winter's Bone Productions LLC, cop. 2010. DVD.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. (1966). Trans. Bruce Fink, Heloise Fink, and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

---. “The Imaginary Function of the Ego and the Discourse of the Unconscious,” The Seminar, Book II (1954-1955): The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. Jacques-Alain Miller, Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli, Trans. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991. Print.

---. The Seminar, Book III (1955 -1956): The Psychoses. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton & Co., 1993. 37-40. Print.

---. Le séminaire, livre IV (1956-1957): la relation d’objet. Text established by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1994. Print.

---. Le séminaire, livre VI (1958-1959): Le désir et son interprétation. Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2013. Print.

---. The Seminar, Book XI (1964): The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton & Co., 1998. Print.

---. Le séminaire, livre XI (1964): Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Text established by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Print.

---. The Seminar, Book XVII (1969-1970): The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. Print.

---. The Seminar, Book XX (1972-1973): Encore. Ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998. Print.

---. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” in Ecrits.

---. “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” (1960) in Ecrits, 692-93.

---. “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious, in Ecrits (1966).” Trans. Bruce Fink, Heloise Fink, and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. 671-702. Print.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. “L’être et l‘Un.” Silet: L’orientation lacanienne, 2010-2011. Web.

---. “The Feminine at the Limit,” Papers. No. 4, 2013. Web.

---. “A Nonexistent Seminar.” The Symptom. No. 12, 2011. Web.

---. “Jacques-Alain Miller on Jacques Lacan.” Le séminaire, livre VI (1958-1959): Le désir et son interprétation. Text established by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Éditions de la Martinière. 2013. Print.

---. “Presentation of Book VI of the Seminar of Jacques Lacan.” PDF file. Web.

---. “Repetition, Transference and the Sexual Real.” Silet (Seminar 1994-1995, un-published text; text and notes reviewed by Anne Lysy. Lecture given on March 15, 1995). Trans. Russell Grigg. Also in Psychoanalytical Notebooks, no. 22, 2011. Print.

Ragland, Ellie. “Approaching the Real of the Borromean Knot by a Knotting of the Impossible Real to the Impossible-to-Bear.” What’s Up? The Real in the 21st Century. World Association of Psychoanalysis Congress, April 17-18, 2014, Paris.

---. Jacques Lacan & the Logic of Structure: Lacanian Structures and Language in Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

---. “Lacan’s Theory of Sublimation: A New Look at Sophocles’ Antigone.Critical Essays on Jacques Lacan. Ed. Ellie Ragland. New York: Macmillan, 1999. 102-18. Print.

---. “Lacan’s Topological Unit and the Structure of Mind.” Lacan: Topologically Speaking. Eds. Ellie Ragland and Dragan Milovanovic. New York: Other Press, 2004. 72-86.Originally published in ANALYSIS: The Australian Centre for Psychoanalysis, vol. 8, 1998. 72-86. Print.

---. The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004. Print.

---. “The Sexual Masquerade: A Lacanian Theory of Sexual Difference.” Lacan and the Subject of Language. Eds. Ellie Ragland and Mark Bracher. New York: Routledge, 1991. 49-80. Reprinted London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2014. Print.

---. “Sublimation, Antigone, and the Violence of the Real.” ANALYSIS: The Australian Centre for Psychoanalysis. Vol 16, Winter 2007. 1-32. Print.

Woodrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2006. Print.

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1 I argue this point in “Approaching the Real of the Borromean Knot by a Knotting of the Impossible Real to the Impossible-to-Bear.”

2 Cf. Jacques-Alain Miller’s “A Nonexistent Seminar” on this point.

3 Jacques-Alain Miller on Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire VI (1958-1959): Le désir et son interprétation; cf. “Presentation of Book VI of the Seminar of Jacques Lacan.”

4 Cf. Ragland, Jacques Lacan & the Logic of Structure.

5 This ‘right’ makes no sense in Capitalist America where the right to domain does not exist. But many social democratic countries countenance such a right and approve the legality of ‘squatter’s rights.’

6 Cf. Lacan, “The Imaginary Function of the Ego and the Discourse of the Unconscious,” Seminar II 109; see also the ‘L Schema’ in “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’,” Ecrits 40.

7 One of the horrors confronted by psychoanalysis is that mothers, without knowing it, can love their children too much. The mother who clutches her child to her breast, protecting this child from the “arrows and slings” of the outside world, may well end up producing a psychotic child who remains mentally identified with the symbiosis of being One with the mother, instead of two. If the child experiences the effect of difference – the law of the Father’s Name – this child is prepared by a third term – the signifier for difference itself – to enter the world of the Other, the symbolic sphere of society. Cf. Lacan, S IV, 269.

8 Cf. Lacan, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, in Ecrits 671-702.

9 Cf. Ragland, “Lacan’s Theory of Sublimation: A New Look at Sophocles’ Antigone,” 1-32.

10 For Lacan, hysteria is not pathological; it is, on the one hand, a particular suffering that yields well to the psychoanalytic clinic of treatment. But more importantly here, it is also a discourse of truth spoken in the realm of those who lie, who want only to keep up the game of semblance, of appearance, the pretense that there is no real.

11 Lacanian analysts tend to find it easier to work with hysterical patients than others because they live so close to what Jacques-Alain Miller calls the unconscious real. Cf. Jacques-Alain Miller, “Repetition, Transference and the Sexual Real.”

12 Cf Miller’s lesson of March 15, 1995 in his seminar, Silet: L’orientation lacanienne.

13 Discussion heard at the Ragtime Cinema in Columbia, Missouri.

14 Only the French edition has this reference in its postface.

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Ellie RAGLAND, « Knowing the Real in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4041

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University of Missouri,

Ellie Ragland (Professor; PhD in Romance Languages; University of Michigan, ’72) teaches critical theory and psychoanalytic theory, as well as world literature. She is the author of over 100 articles, has lectured nationally and internationally at over 100 universities and scholarly gatherings. She has held an NEH Grant, a Humanities Fellowship at the University of Illinois and has received other honors, including the Missouri Gold Chalk award for excellence in teaching. Her books include Rabelais and Panurge: A Psychological Approach to Literary Character (Rodopi, 1975); Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Illinois, 1985); Essays on the Pleasures of Death (Routledge, 1995); The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan (SUNY Press at Albany, N.Y., 2004); Jacques Lacan and the Logic of Structure: Lacanian structures and language in psychoanalysis (Routledge, London, England, 2014). Her current book is on Hysteria: Structure, Discourse, Logic, Fantasy and Symptom. Her edited and co-edited books include Lacan and the Subject of Language (Routledge, 1991; revived in 2014), with Mark Bracher, Critical Essays on Jacques Lacan (Macmillan, 1999) and Lacan: Topologically Speaking, co-edited with Dragan Milovanovic (Other Press, 2004). She edited the official Lacanian journal – Newsletter of the Freudian Field – for eight years and published 8 volumes from 1987 to 1994. She now edits (Re)-Turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies of which 7 volumes have appeared from 2003-2014. She reads regularly for university presses, journals, promotions, and also taught at The University of Paris in the Department of Psychoanalysis in 1994-1995. She is a member of The New Lacanian School and of the World Association of Psychoanalysis.

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