Master Cat! Alvaro Rodriguez breaks down the Academy Award® Best Picture nominee:
Written by: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
This is a classic reimagining of one of the oldest stories we have: the Quest, or in the parlance of Save the Cat!, the Golden Fleece, a name which pays homage to the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Golden Fleeces are road movies, outer journeys in search of a primal prize. Along the way, our heroine will be aided by allies, beset by enemies, and tested. The boon gained in the quest will be primal and essential — this is no mere trinket but a treasure of real significance that will complete the journey. The other element of the quest story is that the outward journey mirrors an inward journey of self-realization. See also Joseph Campbell’s monomyth explored in The Hero With a Thousand Faces for more examples.
Logline: When a teenaged girl’s meth-cooking father puts the family homestead up for his bond, she must go on a quest through the dangerous Missouri backwoods to find him or risk losing the only home she has.
Opening Image: A simple homestead in the backwoods, though obviously poverty-stricken, is still rather idyllic, as Ree (Academy Award® Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence) and her young siblings work and play in a kind of backwoods Eden. These images are counterpointed with an off-screen lullaby sung by a maternal voice. This is home.
Theme Stated: “Never ask for what ought to be offered.” As our heroine embarks on a journey, all her notions of the rules of hospitality and family will be challenged.
Set-Up: Ree, 17, cares for her younger siblings and a semi-catatonic mother in the backwoods of Missouri. She is the caretaker, the de facto mother. She walks them to school — sees other teenagers in Home Economics class with dolls they are pretending to parent, a puppet show in sharp contrast to the realities of Ree’s real life. She sees other JROTC students — a potential escape hatch from her current situation. Ree visits her neighbors Sonya and Blond Milton and asks them to take care of her horse, which she can no longer afford to feed.
Catalyst: Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) arrives as Ree splits wood with an axe. Seeing Ree’s the one in charge, he tells her that her father, Jessup, has put the homestead up for his bond after being arraigned on charges of cooking methamphetamine. If he fails to show up for his hearing, the county will take the home and property, all she has in the world.
Debate: Ree defiantly states she will find Jessup, but Baskin warns against this. Ree goes to her friend Gail to see if she can borrow her boyfriend’s truck to go look for Jessup. When this is refused, she seeks out her uncle Teardrop (Academy Award® Best Supporting Actor nominee John Hawkes) who much more menacingly warns her against starting this quest. “That’s a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishing you was.”
Ree heads to the home of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), a relative and criminal companion of Jessup. Little Arthur is no help, and we sense he’s scared or hiding something. He tempts Ree with drugs (“Want a line? Want some smoke?”) but she will not be pulled from her quest.
Break into Two: Ree must now go deeper into the backwoods, searching for a man named Thump Milton at his home. She is met by Merab (Dale Dickey), literally a threshold guardian who stands between Ree and Thum, presumably lurking inside the house.
“You got the wrong place, I expect,” Merab says. Ree makes her case. Merab returns from the recesses of the house with a hot drink and a final warning. Thump will not see her; he already knows what she wants and he will offer no help.
B Story: The hidden element in this journey is blood — blood relations and the blood spilled in murder. Ree seeks help all along her bloodline to find her father and return him home, but these same relatives are bound by something darker and stronger than blood: a code of silence. Will Ree gain their trust and earn their help? (“Some of our blood at least is the same. Ain’t that s’posed to mean something’ – isn’t that what is always said?”)
Fun and Games: Back at home, Ree is accosted by her neighbor, Blond Milton (also a relative of Thump’s) and led to a burned-out meth shack. Blond Milton says Jessup was last seen here and must have blown himself up cooking meth. Ree investigates the ruins and quickly determines this has been a ploy to get her off the track. The explosion must have happened long before Jessup went missing.
Ree continues her young siblings’ education, but it’s taken a more serious tone. She shows them how to shoot rifles and how to skin and gut squirrels for stew. “There’s a bunch of stuff you’re gonna have to get over being scared of,” Ree says.
Gail returns with the keys to her boyfriend’s truck. Now Ree has the means to begin her quest anew.
Ree finds April (Sheryl Lee), Jessup’s last known girlfriend. April confesses that the last time she saw Jessup, he was surrounded by strange men, seemed nervous, and did not acknowledge her.
Teardrop returns and offers Ree some money. Jessup has missed his court date. Teardrop advises Ree to sell off the timberland and collect on it before it’s taken away. She refuses.
Midpoint: The bailbondsman comes looking for Jessup. He sternly questions Ree about Jessup’s whereabouts and for the first time, Ree says Jessup is dead. With no proof of this, Ree will surely lose the house in a matter of days. The bailbondsman tells Ree there’s nothing left for her to do unless she can prove Jessup is really dead. (Note that the original goal of the quest has transformed from “Go find your father” to “find proof of your father’s death.”)
Bad Guys Close In: Against all advice, Ree attempts to confront Thump Milton at the stockyards. She chases after him but he manages to get away from her in the maze of cattle chutes.
She defiantly returns to Thump’s door, but this time Merab greets her with a hot drink thrown in her face as she’s attacked by Merab and her sisters, beaten, and dragged into the barn.
Ree wakes in the torture chamber of the barn, surrounded by the dark and stern faces of her captors, including Little Arthur. Merab pleads with her, “You was warned nice and you didn’t listen. Why didn’t you listen?”
Thump appears and Ree makes her plea to him. He listens stoically and walks away, seemingly leaving her to her fate. Teardrop arrives and stands for Ree. (“This is a girl who ain’t gonna tell nobody nothing.”) Thump agrees to let her go in peace.
All Is Lost: Teardrop tells Ree the truth about Jessup. He knows Jessup had broken the code of silence and talked to the Sheriff. Someone else knew, too, and that’s why Jessup is dead. If Teardrop ever learns the identity of Jessup’s murderer, he will be blood-bound to seek retribution.
Dark Night of the Soul: Ree retreats home to have her wounds tended by Gail in a makeshift hospital of borrowed painkillers and bags of frozen veggies doubling as cold packs. As she sleeps, she dreams of a squirrel clinging to a tree then running as invisible chainsaws hack and burn the timberland and vultures feed on the carrion left behind.
Ree considers splitting up the family, having her younger brother stay with Sonya and Blond Milton and seeing if Teardrop will take her little sister.
In a final attempt at escape, Ree goes to the see the Army recruiter at school. He offers no hope, though, as Ree is too young to sign for herself and the $40,000 bonus she seeks will be too long in coming.
Break into Three: Teardrop, tired of waiting, awakens Ree and kickstarts the quest to find Jessup’s body. They confront one of Thump’s minions outside a bar and when they’re refused help, Teardrop smashes the man’s windshield with an axe. There’s no turning back now.
Finale: Ree and Teardrop search a graveyard for Jessup but find nothing. Returning home, they’re pulled over by the Sheriff, who orders Teardrop out of the truck. An armed Teardrop refuses, instead telling the Sheriff he knows it was the Sheriff himself who exposed Jessup to the men who later murdered him. The standoff ends without gunfire.
Ree, resolved to never finding Jessup, goes through old mementos of her father and her family and burns some of them. Meanwhile, her younger siblings play hide-and-seek among the hay bales, a counterpoint to the quest Ree has seemingly failed.
Merab and her sister show up unexpectedly at Ree’s door. Ree greets them with a shotgun and an admonition to get off her porch. But Merab has an offer Ree cannot refuse: “We’re going to fix your problem for you. We’ll take you to your daddy’s bones.” Former enemies have become unexpected allies.
Blindfolded and unarmed, Ree is led to the final stage of her journey (what Campbell would call the Approach to the Inmost Cave). The women lead Ree onto a rowboat in semi-darkness, row out on the lake and stop among fallen, half-sunken trees where Jessup’s body has been dumped, a backwoods parallel to the River Styx, perhaps.
Ree plunges her hands into the icy water and finds her father’s body. She pulls his arm to the surface as Merab fires up the chainsaw and saws through first one, then both forearms, giving Ree the fingerprint proof she’ll need of Jessup’s death.
Now that she has the objects of her quest, Ree is changed. The act has forever transformed her, and her old self is left behind with her daddy’s blood and bones at the bottom of the lake.
Ree returns to the Sheriff’s office with the hands. They will confirm Jessup’s death.
In a coda, Ree is back home with her young siblings. Teardrop arrives carrying a gift for the kids — two young chicks to raise. The bailbondsman also shows up, returning the remainder of the bond put up for Jessup: an envelope of cash which is now Ree’s.
Ree offers Teardrop Jessup’s old banjo, which he plucks a moment before admitting to Ree that he now knows the identity of Jessup’s murderer. He leaves.
Final image: The home restored. Ree and her young siblings sit on the porch and she announces she will never leave them. Her little sister picks up the banjo and plays out the scene, echoing the lullaby sung by the mother in the opening image, now strummed by the child. The cycle is complete and so, begins again.
Next week’s blog: New Class Announcement