Set in the hardscrabble Missouri Ozarks, "Winter's Bone" is a detective story of sorts, except you would never think of it that way. It's too emotionally complex. The seemingly straightforward, almost schematic story expands into something much richer.
Ree (the extraordinary Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenager whose family is in jeopardy when her crystal-meth-dealer father, who put the house up as collateral, jumps bail. With an ailing, uncomprehending mother, an 8-year-old sister, and a brother of perhaps 12 to care for, Ree sets out to find her father and bring him home.
The ravages of the drug trade on this clannish Ozark community are everywhere evident. Director Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, doesn't melodramatize anything. She doesn't have to. We can see for ourselves how people's lives have been torn away. As Ree doggedly, indomitably, goes about her quest, she encounters locals, including her father's brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who have an undead pallor and a hair-trigger rage. But even those not deranged by drugs have a wary, scary presence. They live by a survivalists' code: Mind your own business and stay alive.
Ree's quest, her own chance at survival, puts her on a deadly collision course. At 17, she is a Mother Courage not out of choice but of necessity. She doesn't spend much time playing with her young siblings, whom she dearly loves. There's no time for that. (The lack of play is, paradoxically, a sign of love.) Instead, she teaches them how to skin a squirrel and shoot a gun. When she's with her best friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), whom she tries to enlist in her cause, we can see how the usual teenage sillinesses simply do not exist for her.
It's likely that, even without her father's disappearance, Ree would have been this hard-set, but the experience brings out in her a willfulness that at times goes beyond reason. She willingly suffers grave physical harm. And yet what she is doing is the most reasonable thing in the world. She is, as the director has said, a "lioness protecting her pride."
Because this Ozark world has so often been portrayed as an ingrown cabal of hillbillies with banjos straight out of "Deliverance," it takes a while to realize just how rigorously Granik has revamped that caricature. The destitution in "Winter's Bone" is not the whole story; there are those besides Ree who have a saving grace. (Her friend Gail, for one.) And even those who threaten her, like Teardrop or the Ma Barker-like Merab (Dale Dickey), are given their due. They come out of the same world as Ree. Misery cuts both ways.
When Ree says to Teardrop, "You always scare me," and he answers, "That's because you're smart," he's giving her a high accolade. It's not enough to be brave; you also have to know the limits of bravery – if only as a way to win. Teardrop is smart enough to know that his niece's cause is just, and that by choosing to help her he will further derange his life. He doesn't care, which, in context, is a form of valor. In the Ozarks of this movie, heroism doesn't always come wrapped in the standard packaging.
Granik filmed in actual locations and enlisted many locals as actors. They blend unobtrusively with the professionals in the cast. As for Jennifer Lawrence, she's probably the most gifted actress of her generation. How wonderful that, so young, she has already found a role worthy of her talent. Grade: A (Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.)
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