NOTE: This spoiler was written and submitted by Sam.
As the movie opens, we see a little boy and girl playing on a trampoline outside their house while their older sister, Ree Dolly, does laundry. They seem to be poor, living in an old house in a rural area the Ozarks, a region covering parts of Missouri and Arkansas. We also see an older woman it quickly becomes apparent that, due to various traumatic incidents, she’s in a very poor mental state, unable (or unwilling) to talk at all. No father is present; Ree is in charge of the household.
The next day, Ree goes to a nearby high school, watching Marine Corps JROTC cadets drilling in the gym. Someone over the loudspeaker mentions that the Marine Corps anniversary is “this Saturday”, which would be in November. Even though we find out later that she’s only seventeen, she seems to have come just for the memories, probably having dropped out to care for her family. Afterwards, she goes to see a neighbor, Sonya, and asks her to take care of Ree’s horse for now, since she cannot feed it.
At home, while she is chopping firewood, the sheriff shows up to inform her that her dad’s court date is coming up but that he’s disappeared. (Ree’s dad was arrested for making meth.) Sheriff tells Ree that he put the house and their ten acres up for bond; if he doesn’t show up, the bail bond agents will take their land. Ree vows to find him.
Ree sets out to ask her father’s acquaintances. She goes to the home of her best friend and asks if Friend’s husband can drive her around, but he refuses. She then goes to her aunt and uncle to ask for help. Ree suspects that Uncle Teardrop knows where the Dad is, but he denies it, grabs her throat, and storms out of the room. The aunt chases after him; she comes back to Ree with some money and apologies. During their conversation, we learn that at one point Ree had thoughts about joining the Army, perhaps why she was watching the JROTC cadets so intently earlier.
Next, Ree goes to the home of a cousin named Megan, who knows Little Arthur, who was an acquaintance of the Dad. (The Dad’s name is “Jessup” or something like that, but I’ll just call him the Dad since I don’t know exactly what his name is.) Together, they go knock on Little Arthur’s door; Ree explains her situation, but Little Arthur tells her that he hasn’t seen the Dad since summer (which would be about two months back). He offers her drugs; when she refuses, he gets mad and kicks them both out.
Megan tells Ree to go see Milton, a distant relative of theirs, who lives up the hill, but she seems too scared to go with Ree, so Ree heads out alone. There, she meets an angry looking woman who glares at her from the start. Ree asks if she can see Milton; Angry Woman refuses, but Ree mentions their shared blood. Angry Woman glares at her, goes back into the house, and comes out saying Milton doesn’t want to see her because “talking just creates witnesses”. Ree brings up their blood tie again, causing Angry Woman to get even angrier; she tells Ree to go home.
Right as she gets home, one of Ree’s neighbors (and one of the Dad’s cousins) pulls up in a truck and tells her to get in, since “there’s something you need to see”. She seems really reluctant to get in, and is noticeably scared, but she goes with him. They drive to a blown up house down the road; the neighbor claims that the Dad had a meth lab there; something went wrong and he blew himself up. After he drives her home, he offers to take the two children off Ree’s hands and raise them himself (despite earlier shoving one of them around violently); Ree spits at him, saying that her dad was an expert at making meth and besides, there were weeds growing all over the house, so it must have blown up at least a year ago.
Later on, Ree is teaching the children how to shoot guns when her friend comes, having convinced her husband to let her take the truck. They drive to the home of some woman, at which there’s a gathering of people playing music in the living room. The three of them go to another room to talk; it seems this woman had an affair with the Dad a few months ago. She saw the Dad again in a store a few weeks ago, but he was in the company of strangers and acted like he didn’t recognize her; she felt something was wrong.
In the next scene, we see Ree and the two children hunting for squirrels. She goes to cut firewood when Teardrop comes up, recommending that she sell the land before she loses it but she refuses. He snorts cocaine right in front of her, offers her some (she refuses), gives her some money, and leaves.
Ree takes her mother out for a walk in the forest and tearfully asks for advice on whether to sell or not; but her mother is just an empty shell. The bond agent comes by, asking where the Dad is; he tells Ree that the Dad’s land wasn’t enough to cover the bond, so some stranger paid the majority of it. He informs Ree that they have one week before they lose their land.
Ree goes to a livestock auction; she calls out to an old, bearded man (who we later learn is Milton), but he walks off. She goes back to his house, but this time Angry Woman walks right up to her, throws hot coffee in her face, and then (with the help of two others who just came out of the house) drags her to the barn and beats her up badly.
When Ree regains consciousness, Milton asks what she’s doing here, and she repeats her story to him. Suddenly, a truck is heard pulling up; it’s Teardrop. He vouches for Ree and says if she causes any more trouble, he’ll deal with the consequences. They drive off; he tells Ree that the Dad got in trouble because he wasn’t making enough meth, so he started giving information to the Sheriff. Back at home, Ree’s friend and Sonya take care of her, giving her painkillers; she goes to sleep.
In the next scene, we see black and white non-widescreen footage of squirrels running around with chainsaw noises in the background. Then we see vultures flying, sitting in a tree; finally we see a forest billowing smoke. This is probably Ree’s dream.
When Ree wakes up, she goes to see an Army recruiter (in a Marine Corps office, apparently) and asks to enlist for the $40,000 bonus for her family. The recruiter convinces her to instead stay at home and take care of the family. Later, Teardrop stops by and offers to help her find the Dad. They go to a bar, where Teardrop talks to various people. Next, they stop at a convenience store, with Teardrop going up to three rough looking characters who of course say they don’t know where the Dad is and threaten him, telling him not to come back. Teardrop goes to his truck, grabs an axe, and smashes of the rough guys’ car’s window before driving off, while they yell threats like “we’re coming and we’re bringing hell!”
On the way back, they stop at a graveyard, apparently to look for the Dad, but they don’t find him. As they’re driving down a road, a cop car pulls them over; it’s the Sheriff. Teardrop grabs a gun and menaces the Sheriff, who pulls his own gun; Teardrop blames the Sheriff for getting the Dad killed (since the Dad was working as an informant). The Sheriff backs down and Teardrop and Ree drive off.
In the next scene, we see icicles; the weather looks even bleaker now. Angry Woman visits Ree, who greets her with a rifle; she tells Ree that she can solve her problems by taking her to her father’s body. Forced to leave the gun behind and wear a blindfold, she gets in the car, and Angry Woman (and three others) drive her to some desolate place. They get out, take off her blindfold, and take a chainsaw out of the trunk before marching her off into the woods. They go on a boat out on a stream; Angry Woman tells Ree to reach into the water and pull up the Dad’s body. Ree is able to grab the Dad’s hand; Angry Woman tells her to cut it off with the chainsaw, but Ree can’t do it, so Angry Woman does while Ree cries silently.
At the police station, Ree gives the hands to the Sheriff, which will stop the bondsman from taking her land. She goes home to do laundry with the two children. Teardrop shows up and hangs out; the bond agent stops by and gives her the money that the mysterious stranger had paid for the Dad’s bond before leaving. As Ree and the children sit on the steps, they ask if she’s leaving for the army. She tells them that she’s not going anywhere.
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