The detective thriller has proven to be one of the most versatile genres around, but seldom has it been taken into territory as unlikely—and as strangely appropriate—as the bleak Missouri mountains of the spectacular Winter’s Bone. Subtle, disturbing, and utterly gripping, Debra Granik’s lo-fi country noir is the best film I’ve seen in 2010 so far, and boasts a beautifully realized heroine. Though the movie is an exercise in minimalism, it is so skillfully constructed that it works on a multitude of levels: as a menacing suspense yarn, as a crime family saga occasionally reminiscent of The Godfather, even as a quest of truly mythic proportions. In the hands of Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, not to mention a superb cast of both established and nonprofessional actors, a simple story of a teenage girl’s search for her father becomes a deeply resonant tale of corruption, betrayal, redemption, and family ties that bind in deadly ways.
An unimaginable weight rests on the shoulders of Ree Dolly (stunningly portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl who dreams of joining the Army to escape her hardscrabble existence in an impoverished Ozark mountain community. Though she should still be in high school, Ree is charged with raising her two young siblings and caring for her mentally ill mother. Her father, Jessup Dolly, has only one trade to ply: He is renowned for his skill at cooking methamphetamine, the local cash crop. When Jessup disappears ahead of an impending court date, Ree learns that he put their house up for bond. If her father doesn’t show up for his trial, Ree and her family will be turned out into the frigid Missouri mountains to “live like dogs.” The police and bondsmen searching for him have failed. It’s up to Ree to find him.
Unfortunately, there are some very dangerous people who don’t want Jessup found. As Ree trudges through the stark, ramshackle countryside—the family’s car vanished along with Jessup—in search of anyone who might know her father’s whereabouts, she runs afoul of her own clannish family. Almost all of the Dollys are tied to the local meth economy, including her volatile uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). Repeatedly warned off her search, Ree won’t give up. She kicks a variety of hornets’ nests, including the mean-as-a-snake drug dealer Little Arthur (a good way to end up “et by hogs, or wishing you were,” Teardrop warns her), the matriarchal and mercurial Merab (Knoxville native Dale Dickey), and the elusive Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), a man so dangerous that even his own grandchildren are terrified to cross him.
She might be a blood relative, but the Dollys see Ree as an outsider. She is the only one of them who hasn’t succumbed to the twin scourges of drug addiction and violent crime, and they resent her for it. Even those who seem to offer help can turn on her at a moment’s notice, as their aloofness erupts into unpredictable bursts of violence. But this is the maze that Ree must navigate to save her family home, and she will not be deterred from her task. Even when she’s dumped, beaten and bloodied, on the floor of a barn, surrounded by people who wouldn’t think twice about killing her, Ree’s commitment to her quest does not waver.
Even if the filmmakers had been content to stop there, Winter’s Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, would be a formidable film. It’s a cracking good suspense story that grabs you by the throat and never lets go, an atmospheric blend of Southern Gothic and backwoods noir that practically hums with tension and a pervading sense of menace. It’s a flesh-and-blood film populated by shapeshifters whose motives we can only guess, and we’re genuinely frightened for Ree as she descends ever further into the mountain underworld into which her father has disappeared.
But Winter’s Bone, at once grim and hopeful, is far more than an entertaining genre film. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, set against a stunningly realistic portrayal of modern-day rural America at its roughest edges. In Ree’s world, nothing is easy. Survival is never a given. Victories are hard-won and temporary, and redemption is earned with blood and tears. By the time the film is over, Ree will have been tested in ways that would break most grown men, but this incredible young woman always stands her ground. Thanks to a remarkable script and what will hopefully be a career-making performance, Ree Dolly is a character so completely formed that she lives on long after the credits roll.