Winter’s Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a stark, raw, and gritty masterpiece of storytelling, a thoroughly absorbing detective story that goes above and beyond the reliable conventions of mystery solving. It’s a quiet, harsh, and unflinching societal drama set deep within the Ozarks, a world of cold forest lands, small houses that look slopped together from spare parts, cars perpetually hoisted on cinderblocks, and distrustful mountainfolk who all seem to be related to some degree. In these desolate backlands, we find seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who has taken her mother’s place as a homemaker for her younger brother and sister. Her mother is still there, but only in body; her mind is somewhere off the beaten path, having strayed after an emotional trauma she could never come to terms with.
Ree’s father, Jessup, was arrested for cooking meth, which seems to be what most people do around these parts. Why? It certainly can’t be for the money, considering the abject poverty in which some of them live. Whatever the case, Ree learns from the local sheriff that her father skipped bail and has gone missing. Worse yet, he put his own house up as a way to meet his bond, apparently having no other assets at his disposal. He now has one week to turn himself in. If he doesn’t, Ree and her family will be thrown out of the house. Ree, with remarkable understated determination, vows that she will find him. Thus begins a door-to-door manhunt, Ree visiting the homes of Jessup’s known associates. It’s a journey that will prove more dangerous than it may first seem; these people are just as wary of their own kind as they are of outsiders, perhaps even more so. Family means nothing. It’s all about survival.
Ree definitely knows how to survive. She does the best she can with her siblings – feeding them, clothing them, educating them, showing them how to hunt and prepare food with what little she has to work with, including welfare and the occasional helping hand from neighbors. She keeps them as happy as she can, and indeed, they seem unaware of how disadvantaged they truly are. If they are aware of it, then they don’t seem all that bothered by it, not as long as they have Ree to keep them in line. So selfless is this young woman that one can’t help but wonder where she learned it from. Certainly not from her mother, who can do little more than stare vacantly into the distance, thinking whatever she thinks. I guess some of us are naturally inclined to be self sufficient. Maybe we need more people like her in our lives, if not for friendship, then just for the satisfaction of aspiring to be like her.
As she journeys forward, she crosses paths with her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a meth dealer who may or may not have something to do with Jessup’s disappearance. He’s intimidating and mysterious, distrustful and bitter, scarred and hopeless – simultaneously Ree’s greatest obstacle and greatest ally in getting to the bottom of things. Hawkes, in the tradition of great actors like Al Pacino and Marlon Brando and even contemporary figures like Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen, completely disappears into his role, turning out a flawless balancing act between fearsome and forlorn. Teardrop is a hardened man who I seriously doubt has ever been happy, or at the very least, contented; the words themselves may be foreign concepts to him. Watching him as he progresses with Ree, I was torn between being frightened of him and feeling very sorry.
Jennifer Lawrence, at just nineteen years old, gives one of the year’s best performances, and I would be greatly disappointed if she weren’t recognized with an Oscar nomination. The determination she brings to her character shows not the slightest trace of conventional Hollywood heroism; she doesn’t make herself into a larger-than-life caricature of the strong willed young woman, someone who will sermonize endlessly and make a spectacle of herself. She’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. She does what she does not to prove a point, but merely because she has no other choice. Rarely do you see films with characters so convincing, so engaging, so in command of dialogue and emotion.
The film’s pacing is superb. The final thirty minutes alone build the kind of suspense that would rival even the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Ree’s journey having taken a violent turn. It all builds up to a late night boat ride through a swamp, and while I won’t reveal what happens, I will say that the scene is frightening in a way that most horror movies could only hope to be. That it’s so terrifying is a testament to Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (the director), who wrote the screenplay in such a way that we can actually feel something for the characters. Without that emotional connection, there would be little for the audience to react to; the film would be a sequence of events, and nothing more. Winter’s Bone is a bleak, absorbing, resonant, tightly wound treasure of a film, one of the best I’ve seen this year.