I saw Winter’s Bone, a riveting and self-assured gothic melodrama with a no-name cast, on one of the most sweltering days of this sweltering summer, and it was like air conditioning for the soul. The cold of a mountain winter infuses every frame of this movie: It’s in the burnt-out landscape and the barren trees, the hard brown earth and drifts of reddish leaves, and the raw, windscraped faces of the people, huddled in parkas and flannels and holding on for spring.
The setting is the Ozarks, somewhere in the hollows and ravines of southern Missouri. The heroine is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old with a medicated, semi-comatose mother and two pre-teen siblings to watch over. The plot is True Grit meets Deliverance: a girl’s quest after the folk who may have done away with her father, set in a tangled, inbred realm where blood and tradition govern, and where 21st-century America might as well be a foreign country for all it touches on their lives.
Ree’s father, Jessup Dolly, is a small-time crook with a flair for cooking meth, which is to say that he’s like almost every other adult male in his gone-to-seed community. When he is arrested, posts bail, and then swiftly vanishes, his daughter takes his disappearance more or less in stride. There’s enough to be done caring for her mother and shepherding her brother and sister off to school without worrying about when her absentee parent will resurface.
But then the local lawman (a weaselly Garret Dillahunt) informs Ree that her father used their house and valuable forest acreage as collateral on his bail, which means that if he doesn’t turn up, their home will be forfeit to the county. Suddenly the clock is ticking: She has a week to turn him up if he’s alive and find his body if he isn’t, or else all the family’s property will be confiscated and she’ll have to beg her relatives to put a roof over their heads.
Of course, in this area, almost everyone’s a relative of one sort or another, but that doesn’t make them any friendlier to Ree, or any more helpful in her search. She starts with her hollow-eyed Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), often her father’s partner in crime, and finishes up at the door of her distant relation Thump Milton, a local meth kingpin with a squalid compound and a clutch of ravaged-looking women running interference for him. The reactions to her quest range from stonewalling and incredulity (“Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a woman barks) to frustration, fury, and finally violence. But Ree, dogged and driven, just keeps on coming.
Lawrence’s performance is a marvel of restraint. She looks like a younger, less plastic Renée Zellweger, but she blends seamlessly into a world of half-shaven backwoodsmen and their haggard, cunning women. Her face is a mask of resolve, her tone is laconic with occasional flashes of savagery and wit, and when she finally cracks under the strain, it’s a shock, and a revelation.
She’s backed by Hawkes’s vivid turn as her uncle, who seems almost villainous initially but eventually proves the closest thing she has to an ally, and by the gaunt intensity of Dale Dickey as Merab, the matriarch of the Milton clan and the keeper of its secrets. In what’s supposed to be a man’s world, it’s the contest of wills between Ree and Merab that really matters, giving shape to the film and determining the outcome of the heroine’s quest.
When you’re making a low-budget movie set in an odd part of America, there’s always a temptation to neglect plotting and fall back on atmosphere alone. But Winter’s Bone has the best of both worlds: the immersiveness of a documentary and the narrative propulsion of a film noir. The movie establishes the customs of the country in swift strokes and sidelong glances — a squirrel-skinning here, a folk sing-along there, National Guard units marching in high-school gyms and the casual offer of “a doobie for your walk” on the way out the door. But it never loses its ticking-clock propulsiveness as it builds, and builds, to a harrowing, watery finale.
The director is Debra Granik, whose debut was 2004’s addiction drama Down to the Bone, which catapulted its lead, Vera Farmiga, to star turns in The Departed and Up in the Air. Granik has waited longer to follow up on that first effort, but this movie makes the wait worthwhile. This year, Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win a Best Director statuette at the Oscars. With Winter’s Bone, Granik has made a plausible case that she should be the second.