Winter in the Ozark Mountains. Timber-framed houses litter a rust-coloured landscape, the yards full of abandoned cars, washing machines, years of accumulated junk. In this incestuous community, where the families are all linked by blood ties and a terrifying patriarch is king, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to raise her two younger siblings, while her mother, mentally locked inside a world of her own, barely acknowledges their existence. And then the sheriff arrives: her father, who cooks meth, is missing ahead of a court appearance. If he skips the hearing, their home, posted as bond, will be seized. But when Ree tries to find him, there’s no one who will help - instead, she’s chased off people’s property, threatened, and taught the hard way not to interfere in other people’s business.
Directed by Debra Granik and based on a novel by Daniel Woodrall, Winter’s Bone paints a portrait of a remote community mired in poverty and drug addiction. These are people who have fallen through the cracks, who live by a different set of laws and deal out justice with their own hands; the women, protecting their loved ones, are even more sinister and ruthless than the men. It’s a gripping film that reminds the audience that there is a world far away from Hollywood or the bright lights of New York, or even the majestic Midwest that usually stands in for rural Americana. Chillingly authentic, this is a place that few outsiders will ever see.
But the film’s biggest assets are two terrific performances. Lawrence, in her mud-stained, ill-fitting clothes, her hair knotted, exudes grace and a rough, unvarnished beauty (she’s already been cast in both an upcoming Jodie Foster-directed film and the next X-Men movie). She’s completely convincing as the foolishly brave 17-year-old who is determined to ensure her family’s survival, with no money, no job and little hope.
Another surprise is John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, her father’s brother and a violent, unpredictable addict who belatedly tries to do the right thing by Ree. Although he was endearing in films like Me and You and Everyone We Know, if a sometimes surprising love interest, here his craggy features and thin, worn-out frame blend perfectly into the landscape; he’s a man ravaged by abuse, who’s been given one last shot at redemption.
But the deeper Teardrop and Ree dig, the more tangled things get. Meth - using, selling or supplying - has corrupted the whole community, including the law, and a father who first appears to be the story’s villain may not be such a bad man after all. But even Ree is finally forced to accept that rough justice is the only way to protect what little community she has.
Granik’s film is part social realism, part mystery and part tragedy. But as bleak as it sounds, Winter’s Bone has a special quality that makes it an unmissable film, and deserving of the Grand Jury Prize that it received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.