The remorseless sense of detail is what first captures your attention. Set in the Missouri Ozarks, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, who calls that area home, Winter’s Bone inhabits a world of bare trees and stray dogs, lined faces and tumbledown shacks. The impoverished rural community where heroine Ree Dolly lives is not the kind of locale that usually turns up on movie screens, so at first, that setting is all you can see. But once you acclimate, the story’s mythic arc becomes visible—strong and tense and enormously compelling.
Woodrell’s work is sometimes described as “country noir” (the subtitle of one of his books is, in fact, “A Country Noir”), but that doesn’t seem quite right here. Tonally speaking, Winter’s Bone is less criminal underworld and more hellish Underworld. Like Orpheus, Ree plunges down, ignoring all advice against doing so, resolute in the way of one who believes she has no other choice, because she is on a mission to find someone lost. Ree’s quest is not romantic, not even particularly affectionate (at least not toward the man she seeks), but she holds to it doggedly. She is an epic hero in a painfully realistic world.
Played by Jennifer Lawrence in what, if there is any justice, should be a career-launching performance, Ree is a seventeen-year-old woman already shouldering far too much responsibility. Her mentally ill mother is virtually catatonic, and one gets the strong impression that her father, Jessup, hasn’t been a reliable presence for a long time, leaving Ree to care for her two younger siblings in the family’s ramshackle home on a few acres of woodland. Even that last shred of stability is threatened, though, when the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) visits with bad news: Arrested for cooking meth, Jessup used the family property to bond himself out of jail, and he’s gone missing. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, Ree, her mother, and her brother and sister will all be left homeless. Determined to prevent that from happening, Ree sets out to find her father. She begins by visiting his relatives and colleagues (who tend to be the same people), but Jessup was in a dangerous business, and no one wants his strong-willed daughter asking questions about where he is. Even his brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), tells her to back off.
This kind of material could be unbearably bleak. The meth trade is treacherous and ugly, and the Dollys live in such devastating poverty that they’re not ever sure where their next meal will come from. The only escape Ree sees is joining the army, but that door, too, is closed to her: Even if she were old enough to enlist, she wouldn’t be able to take her brother and sister with her, and abandoning them is out of the question.
And yet, while sometimes grim, Winter’s Bone never feels completely hopeless. The movie is gorgeously shot, for one thing. Unlike many independent films (Bone was a Sundance favorite), it’s not a poorly lit, shaky-cam special. While never avoiding naturalistic detail, director Debra Granik (who also cowrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini) sees the stark beauty of the Ozarks and memorably captures that, with cinematographer Michael McDonough, in long horizon shots and images of barren branches against the sky. When Ree looks out at her brother and sister darting through the trees or playing on hay bales, you understand why she fears the loss of this land. It’s not just that it’s all she has; this is home, and she loves it, and through her eyes, you can see its beauty. Even the film’s nightmarish climax has a haunting, evocative look.
I’d like to say the movie’s understated elegance helps it avoid the hillbilly-exploitation pitfall (there’s no cute blaxploitation-esque portmanteau for that, is there?), but I’m not entirely sure it does. Bone never condescends, and it depicts charity and twangy bluegrass along with criminal enterprise and brutish violence—good alongside bad. But it’s still a harrowing portrait of a community all but ruined, perhaps completely ruined, by the meth trade, and it’s hard to know how fair that is. The best example of this problematic representation is Merab, the local boss’s wife, rivetingly played by Dale Dickey. With her drawn face and flinty eyes, Merab is all hard edges, not vindictive but pitiless, cruel in her kindnesses and sometimes just cruel. She seems more like one of the fates or furies than a human being, her humanity having been chipped at for so long that little is left. And while it’s all too plausible that Merab could have become this damaged, damaging person, ascribing her to a culture not your own is an uneasy proposition. As a sheltered little suburbanite turned middle-class city dweller, I wince at how readily I accept Merab as a product of this alien-to-me world. I marvel at Dickey’s raw, terrifying performance, but it makes me uncomfortable.
I feel much happier appreciating Hawkes, one of those unsung character actors who’s brilliant in everything he does (the late lamented Deadwood, for example), and especially young Lawrence, whose Ree is unforgettable. Not quite as savvy as she needs to be, Ree nonetheless soldiers on, her jaw set with determination but her eyes sometimes betraying her fear. She is courageous and resourceful, but she isn’t a superhero, just a teenager in over her head, a teenager who knows she’s in over her head but who continues anyway becomes someone has to and all the adults in her life have failed her. With subtlety and grace, Lawrence embodies both the girl’s strengths and her vulnerabilities. Merab might sometimes feel less than human, but Ree is always exquisitely human. If the movie’s aesthetic qualities don’t elevate Winter’s Bone above exploitation, Ree and her story do.