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Spoilers false and true, Winter’s Bone

August 24, 2011

A few weeks ago the internet was abuzz with the news that spoilers don’t spoil anything–that we actually enjoy stories more when we know how they are going to turn out.

I have believed this for a long time, actually, and put little effort into avoiding spoilers. (I also think that there is a particular pleasure to be had from watching arc-based television series out of order. But maybe that’s just me.) But occasionally this strategy backfires–not because I learn the ending of a story that I wanted to surprise me, but because I learn the wrong ending, and thus spend the entire time anticipating something that just isn’t going to happen.

An example, and a bonus review of Winter’s Bone, which contains spoilers, but which shouldn’t stop you from reading it
Winter’s Bone is an excellent film about a girl named Ree Dolly from the Missouri Ozarks searching for her father in an attempt to save her family. It’s also a crime drama where her father is a bail-skipping drug dealer and Ree needs to find him so that the family’s house, which he put up for his bail bond, won’t be forfeited.

Like many other great crime dramas, e.g. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, or, I’d suggest, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Winter’s Bone plays on the tensions between familial, tribal, and state affiliations; here, the family is Ree’s mother, brother, sister, and father, and her foremost obligation is to protect them at all costs; the tribe is the local gang of meth dealers, whose claim to protect their own but whose unstated primary rule seems to be to not squeal to the cops; the state is the lawful government represented by the perhaps-corrupt sheriff and the army recruitment officer, the one a rather despicable character and the other one of the only characters in the film whose moral compass seems mostly intact.

What’s interesting about Winter’s Bone, however, is that Ree, unlike Michael or Orestes, never gains what tribe or state would call power; she is always only an observer, unable to act save to tell what she has seen, and bound by her code of honor never to speak. So from the beginning, we know that in terms of tribe or state, nothing is going to happen in this film. The conflict is not one of doing, but of knowing: Ree must learn what happened to her father, and, if he is dead (which he is), prove that it is so.

And what’s fascinating, I think, is how difficult that proves to be. Though Ree is told half-way through that her father is dead, she cannot prove it until near the end of the film. In my favorite scene, three crone-like old women who have already beat up Ree whisk her away, blindfolded, to a pond, which they go out onto, and into the icy-cold waters of which (it is, after all, winter) she must plunge her hand and draw out the dead body of her father and hack of its arms to take them to the authorities and thus prove his death. The three women become almost witches, the pond a place of dark necromancy, and Ree their acolyte, in a ceremony not meant to raise the dead, but to prove that the dead are dead.

And now, back to the topic of spoilers
So, I loved this scene, but I loved it slightly less because the entire time, I was half-expecting her father to show up alive and well. This is because I half-remembered reading somewhere that Ree at some point finds her father, and I pictured this to be her finding him alive and well; I even half-remembered a frame from the film of her holding a gun to her father’s head (which makes no sense, in retrospect). So the entire time I was anticipating something that was not going to happen. That is, if anything, worse than having no idea of what is to come.

(And it was especially bad, I think, because Winter’s Bone is so concerned with knowing and proving. There’s a reason the ghost tells us at the beginning of Hamlet that Claudius murdered the king–it takes away the question of what has to be proven, and sets up the task of proving it. But I digress…)

So, does this mean I would have been better off not knowing anything about the film before I saw it? I don’t think so. Rather, I would have been better off knowing more, and more accurately, about it. But, perhaps, this means I shouldn’t read spoilers if I’m not paying enough attention to them to remember what they actually are–at least, not spoilers for things I plan to see.

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