A 17-year-old girl has to keep her family afloat when her father goes missing in Winter’s Bone, a raw and engrossing story.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is 17 but wears a hard look that should belong to someone 40 years older. She has dropped out of school to care for her younger brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Her mom, a ghostly presence in the background, is sick with some unnamed mental illness and is completely removed from the world around her. Ree’s father, we learn, is out on bail after being arrested on charges of cooking meth. He put up the house for his bail bond and, the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs Ree, he has since disappeared.
Ree is already existing on borrowed money, food from neighbors and fried squirrel that she and her siblings shoot in the woods around their house. Without her home and land, Ree has no way to feed or care for her family, all the burdens of which are on her. So she decides to search for her father, even though, as a woman early in her search tells her, that’s a good way to get yourself “et by hogs.”
Ree has one potential ally, Teardrop (John Hawkes), her father’s brother. But he is reluctant to get involved. If her father has gone against the strict no-talking-to-the-law rule that governs this seemingly lawless chunk of the Ozarks, then he is dead and finding out who killed him will only bring more violence.
Like the very best books, Winter’s Bone is a window into a different kind of life. It gives you the texture and the rules that order the world in a way that is natural and that surrounds you with Ree’s life without weighing the story down with exposition. The people that populate this world are equally genuine — never turning into caricatures or vehicles to state a point about the socioeconomics of the region. A movie like this could easily turn into a kind of sleazy poverty exploitation or a romanticizing of rural crime (I like Justified but I’m exceptionally glad this movie isn’t the kind of kick-ass modern day Deadwood that the show is).
Lawrence is a strong actress who makes you believe that Ree can stand her own against sheriffs, drug dealers and an assortment of angry and desperate people. But she also lets you see Ree’s youth — the way she looks longingly at the ROTC practicing in the school’s auditorium (the Army was her now-deferred dream of getting out) or the way she begs her mother to help her figure out what to do as the older woman gazes into space.
She is surrounded by equally skilled actors who seem to always pick being real over being dramatic — everybody’s emotions and motivations are messy and mix pettiness with larger personality traits. In addition to Deadwood alumni like Hawkes and Dillahunt, Winter’s Bone is filled out by richly drawn characters like those played by Dale Dickey (who is supposed to be merely the wife, I think, of the scariest bad guy but is herself much more terrifying than him) and Lauren Sweetser, who plays Ree’s best friend, a girl who herself seems to be shouldering the burdens of a crummy family situation at way too young an age.
Winter’s Bone is the kind of movie that restores your faith in what smaller, independent movies can do — namely tell stories in a way that doesn’t get buried by celebrities and the Hollywood-ness of bigger movies. It is, in short, serious but excellent. A
Rated R for drug material, language and violent content. Directed by Debra Granik and written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (from a novel by Daniel Woodrell), Winter’s Bone is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Roadside Attractions.