Seventeen year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) sets out to track down her bail-jumping dad after he uses the family home to secure his bond. Failing to find him will mean that she, her mother and siblings will have to fend for themselves in the bitter Ozark wood
Caught almost literally between a rock and a hard place, Ree Dolly’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life in the brutal yet sparsely beautiful Ozarks, an unyielding stretch of south-western Missouri, is one that would test the hardiest teenager. Her errant father’s only bankable skill is his ability to cook methamphetamine and he’s long gone, leaving her to care for her glassy-eyed, emotionally hollow mother and her younger brother and sister. His court date is due, and if he fails to make good on his bond and show up at court, they’ll be destitute — feral figures suddenly stalking the knotty landscape.
Which leaves the distraught Ree tramping the backwoods of her home, moving from house to house, rapping on doors to indifference or vehemence from her outlaw neighbours and family. This is a community bound up in its own code of silence and proud of its lawlessness; police deputies approach these homes with fear. Stand-offs are common and justice meted out without recourse to the authorities; here it is blunt, bloody and all-consuming. Director Debra Granik brings this bleak place to quiet life, her unflinching eye capturing the landscape’s nuances as boldly as if it were a character’s features. Her desire to be hard among the details along with Lawrence’s turn as the bedraggled Ree is what should see Winter’s Bone leap the divide between art-house hit and commercial pay dirt. The cast, too, bring their grimy presence to bear through tough, unhinged performances that leave dirty fingerprints across the screen. They bring the horror of what passes for normal life alive.
Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell’s literary style is as raw as the territory these people inhabit: a modern world that could be from another, less evolved age. Broken-down homes litter the back roads, yards are filled with detritus, smashed TVs, broken toilets. It’s a chilling landscape (in both senses) that deters visitors and brutalises the countryside the community’s set in. Michael McDonough’s stark photography gives this almost hermetically sealed place a ruddy beauty that never once hints that spring might come and bring the fields to lush life.
In this environment of characters with features as distinctive and gnarled as the bark of the frostbitten trees, Lawrence’s indomitable performance as a young woman pushed to breaking point by the desire to remain loyal to local customs and the will to survive is a truly standout piece of work. She’s the focal point of almost every frame, whether at its corner, anguishing over her family’s fate, or refusing to be warned off or frozen out. Quietly heroic yet determinedly dogged, even a beating at the hands of the local womenfolk sees her still watchful and aware. Asking if she’s to be killed, she’s told, chillingly, that the idea was talked about before the ever-brooding uncle (a terrific John Hawkes) panics her would-be aggressors like a cat scattering pigeons.
Ree’s grimy rites-of-passage — even its dénouement is unhurriedly violent and downbeat — is not so much about overcoming insurmountable odds, but surviving them. She’s as much a part of these freezing hills and fields as a horse staked to the ground, profile stark against the unyielding sky.
A vivid reworking of Daniel Woodrells novel that brings the books conflicted heroine to searing life in a piece of unhurried filmmaking too rarely seen these days.