What’s even more remarkable is that the story’s actual human protagonist proves equally compelling. In her adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s terrific novel, Granik introduces us to Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old living in those Missouri Ozarks with too much responsibility for her age. Her father, Jessup, an inveterate meth-cooker, has been arrested; her mother is incapacitated by mental illness; and she has become de facto caretaker for her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and sister (Ashlee Thompson). All she has is the family home and land—so when Ree learns that her father can’t be found, and that he put up the property as collateral for his bail bond, she has a matter of days to track him down before the family is left homeless.
As Ree begins her quest for Jessup by checking with relations both near and a few times removed, it becomes clear that the family tree isn’t going to bend in giving up its secrets. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) is only the first to warn her to mind her own business, but as Ree sees it, she’s got no choice—the few handouts she’s getting aren’t going to help when there’s no more roof over their heads. Lawrence turns in a marvelously simmering performance as a young woman whose life has left her without an ounce of self-pity, replaced entirely by a determination to do what has to be done. When she teaches her siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel—and refuses to stomach her brother’s squeamishness at gutting it—we see Ree teaching them the survival skills they may end up needing just as much as the spelling and math facts she quizzes them on.
That’s because her world—captured in slate-gray tones by cinematographer Michael McDonough—is as hard as the title sounds. Granik captures that hardness partly through the worn, drawn faces of her supporting characters, including Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) and the cindereyed Merab (Dale Dickey). But she also finds the small details that tell you so much about the lives and expectations of the people who live in these mountains. When Ree walks through the halls of the high school her duties keep her from attending, it’s not a math or English classroom into which she looks wistfully; but a “life skills” class preparing the teenagers for how to care for a baby, and ROTC exercises. While Granik and screenwriting partner Anne Rosellini spike the laconic dialogue with a few crisp one-liners, they never sacrifice authenticity for something gratuitously clever.
Yet as brilliantly atmospheric as Winter’s Bone is, it would be criminal to understate how effective it is as a rural film-noir thriller. With Ree taking the place of the detective who just doesn’t know when to butt his nose out of dangerous people’s business, the film unspools with tension and urgency. You won’t find many scenes this year that crackle with as much danger as a roadside traffic stop in which Teardrop essentially dares the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) into a showdown, or Ree’s pursuit of the shady local boss known as Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall).
So much about Winter’s Bone pops with intelligence and intensity that it’s a bit startling to have the film ultimately hone in on the simple bonds of family. Those bonds are what force Ree’s hand in the first place, and they’re what she appeals to when stonewalled by those around her. And they also fuel the surprisingly touching eventual connection between Ree and Teardrop (fantastically played by Hawkes) in several late scenes. The events of Winter’s Bone are driven by a violation of this land’s implicit promises of loyalty, and by Ree’s fierce dedication to those promises. Granik’s impressive achievement is making viewers feel as immersed in and connected to this world as those who may never leave it.
Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt