Winter's Bone might be compared to Deliverance, what with its hellish look into the America neglected by everyone fortunate enough to have never stepped into a particularly poor area of the Ozarks. Yet as I looked at its bleak gray skies, stripped trees and barren landscapes, the film that came most often to mind was Threads, the what-if faux-documentary that questioned what nuclear war might mean for the world.
Dirty, broken down objects litter each yard of the decrepit, rotting houses. Meth production and usage is rampant, and high schools appear to function less as preparatory facilities for college than recruiting stations for the military. That raises questions about the fairness of voluntary enlistment, but for those growing up in this situation, a hostile Middle Eastern desert might seem a tropic getaway.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) also has dreams of joining the Army to get the $40,000 signing payment and to get the hell away. But when her father, Jessup, goes on the lam, Ree knows she'll never be able to leave, forced to care for her younger siblings and a brain-dead mother. To make matters worse, the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) comes 'round to inform Ree that Jessup skipped out on his bail, and if he doesn't show up for his hearing, the bondsman will come and collect the house Jessup put up as collateral.
Winter's Bone unfolds as a mystery, yet the core of the story veers off the path of the usual thriller. When we learn Jessup made meth, the film instantly ceases to be about Ree trying to find out what happened to her dad and simply a story of her looking for the inevitable corpse. Yet it's also not a whodunit: Jessup's brother and Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), knows what will happen if word gets out, and at one point he sternly whispers to Ree that if she ever finds out what happened to Jessup to never tell anyone, not even him. If the grim setting were not macabre enough, Winter's Bone is ultimately the quest of a young woman to find and recover just enough of her father that a forensics lab can identify.
There can be no doubt that director Debra Granik, working from Daniel Woodrell's novel, exaggerates its characters and conditions. It is a work of drama. Yet the film sidesteps the usual garish stereotyping that befalls and grim absurdity of backwoods horror, digging into a serious issue plaguing these economically crippled areas. Ree has an admirable fearlessness, but the deeper she travels into the complicated, deadly web of drug production and insular community, the more her courage becomes a liability.
Avoiding garish, gory displays of violence and cheap scares, Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough instead create a constant sense of unease, as if the world is slowly collapsing until we suspect time and space might bend and form a noose around this young woman's neck. Not even family is much help to Ree, and everyone she encounters, whether they have anything to hide or not, exudes a threatening aura. The people of this region have aged prematurely: deep wrinkles threaten to make mole people out of the middle-aged. Stringy, oily hair hangs in clumps.
That's what makes Lawrence stand out. Granik doesn't "prettify" her -- Lawrence has the same messy hair as everyone else -- but for all the emotional maturity she conveys, there's a youthfulness to her appearance that no one else shares. Though fit from constant hard work and a few too many missed meals on account of money, Ree still has a lining of baby fat that retains her youth in a way that even her peers do not enjoy. Her friend Gail, already saddled with a baby, lost all her pregnancy weight but looks as if she aged about 10 years from delivery, and while the husband from her shotgun wedding still wears jerseys and plays video games, he simply looks foolish trying to hang on to his teenage years to get away from the responsibility thrust upon him. Previously known for playing the daughter on The Bill Engvall Show, a tidbit already destined for a "before she was big" clip on a future episode of Inside the Actor's Studio, Lawrence turns that program's gentle, pandering Southern stereotypes on their head, getting at the dark side.
Lawrence has enjoyed about as big a wave of critical praise this year as any actor, and she earns every plaudit. She plays Ree as if a put-upon straight (wo)man who hasn't been informed she's in a horror film and not a comedy. Even her body language communicates an exasperated sigh, as if she knows everything she's about to do is ill-advised but to hell with it, anyway. Encountering characters so grotesque and misshapen that they become the mythological beasts in this Greek drama, Ree never flinches, even after she proves that flinching is not an indication of weakness but an important instinct to protect oneself from harm. Only once does she fully break down, and it's in a moment so horrific that to only shed tears is itself a sign of courage. So natural is Lawrence in the role that she can be in the middle of a monologue and interrupt her train of thought to say "Bless you" with concern when her little brother sneezes.
The sociological implications of Winter's Bone are clear, its setting evoking some East European, post-Communist hellhole that never stabilized when it really occurs in a section of the United States that has been neglected for decades. (When an American flag appears in the reflection of a windshield, it seems a cruel, nagging joke.) Yet Granik has the presence of mind to temper what could have been a parade of clichés -- meth heads, pregnant teens, incestuous communities -- into something that eerily taps into the feelings of hopelessness felt even in the affluent cities during this recession. Furthermore, Granik ensures we admire Ree, who at 17 appears more capable of taking on the world than damn near anyone I've met in college (and that absolutely includes myself). If anything, we're meant to bemoan the fact that Ree will never be allowed to move into the bigger world and contribute, which explains why Granik does not build up the Army as a scapegoat or a strawman image of opportunistic feeders. The dark truth running under the narrative is that, if Ree fails to clear the family, social services will take away her siblings. However, if she succeeds in keeping the house, she effectively binds herself to it forever. But Ree never wavers, and it's a good thing too, for you'll need her strength to face the terror she confronts on a daily basis even from the safe distance of artifice.