Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a rare kind of teenage girl in today's cinemascape. She shoulders the responsibility of her impoverished household in the absence of her father, which includes looking after two much younger siblings and a mother who has been incapacitated by some unidentified mental ailment. She doesn't appear to go to school, though it's hinted that she did in the past, or participate in any of the usual social activities associated with adolescence. Instead, we watch her cook, clean, hunt, and make repairs to the family's dilapidated house in the Ozarks wilderness, often instructing her younger siblings on how to do the same. The only other girl her age that she regularly interacts with is already a married woman.
However, this is only the beginning of Ree's problems. She learns through the local sheriff, Baskin (Garrett Dillahunt), that her missing father, Jessup, was arrested for cooking drugs, put up the family home and property as bail, and disappeared. Unless Jessup can be found to stand trial in a week, the police will seize their home and evict the Dollys. The family is barely getting by as it is, dependent on handouts and whatever they can scrounge from the woods. Losing the house will mean they'll have to split up. Ree sets out to find Jessup to ensure that doesn't happen, but when she starts asking too many questions of the wrong people, it threatens to bring even more trouble down on her head.
"Winter's Bone" is a neo-noir, and the bulk of the film is taken up by Ree's encounters with various characters who might have the information she needs. Some are sympathetic and some are hostile, but it's diffcult to tell which are which. Jessup Dolly and just about everyone else in Ree's rural community are part of a tight-lipped extended family, engaged in illicit activities that are alluded to but never revealed. The longer Ree persists in looking for answers, the more dangerous the situation becomes for her. Director Debra Granik nicely builds the suspense, slowly giving us clues as to what happened to Jessup, but refrains from answering all the questions or explaining everything we see. The film is about Ree dealing with the consequences of her father's actions, and the whys and hows of his ultimate fate aren't important.
The portrayal of the Ozark community is what really sells the picture. Granik presents characters who undeniably fit a certain type - poor, rural, insular, sporting strong regional accents, and a few odd banjos do make appearances - but they are never caricatures. There's a starkness about them that mirrors the harshly beautiful frozen landscape. Both are cold and oppressive, and Ree has to confront both of them continuously during her search. Among the supporting cast, there are some very strong performances. John Hawkes should stir up plenty of year-end award speculation for playing Jessup's brother, Teardrop, a weathered man with a mean, unpredictable temper. Another is Dale Dickey as Merab, the intimidating wife and mouthpiece of the unseen head of the community, who Ree tries to appeal to for help.
However, the real star here is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. She shines as an admirable young heroine whose toughness, intelligence, and considerable strength of will are day-to-day necessities for her survival. When the crisis threatens the family's stability, it's clearly only the latest in a series of struggles, and seeing Ree keep pushing herself harder to endure is a riveting watch. These roles are hard to come by, and I hope Lawrence gets to tackle something this challenging again. I can't think of another film noir with a girl in the lead, and it's interesting to see how the community dynamics are affected by Ree's status as a teenage girl rather than a grown man. Granik could have made a great film with Jessup or Teardrop or the Sheriff as the protagonist, but by having someone like Ree as the lead, we get to see a different facet of this universe than we might have otherwise.
There are a few moments in "Winter's Bone" that rang a little false for me, such as one of Ree's later encounters with Sheriff Baskin where the dialogue is much too pat. I also found some of the musical segments gratuitous, though they're thankfully brief. And I can't help thinking of ways in which the narrative could have been tighter and more impactful, but that would have sacrificed the atmosphere and mood that make "Winter's Bone" so distinctive. Other than that, it's hard to argue with the film's boosters.
To sum up, it looks like we've got a contender here, folks.