Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, it is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is burdened with raising her two younger siblings and caring for her severely depressed mother. Her family’s wellbeing and security are placed on the line when her meth-cooking father goes missing, and Ree finds out that he has placed their home as collateral. She engages in a desperate search to find her father before the courts can seize the house and uproot everything her family has. What starts out as merely asking the neighbors for information leads into a harrowing journey through drug territory.
It is easy to fixate on the bleak winter landscape and barren trees that give this movie its frigid edge. Nestled somewhere in the Ozarks of Missouri, Ree and her people live a segregated life that may seem in some aspects foreign to many viewers. The driving force behind this film, directed by Debra Granik, is the main character. Lawrence’s acting carries an alarming grace and will to survive, and her character’s gumption brings gender roles of the area into question, while challenging some of our own societal norms about teenage girls. From the moment she appears on the screen, chopping wood and teaching the kids how to hunt with guns and gut game, down to the movie’s disturbing yet oddly triumphant conclusion, Ree displays responsibility, pride and a sense of duty to her family.
Her determination and grit are put to the test as she searches the community, stirring up a complex hive of lawless people bound by drugs, blood clans, and secrets. She makes sacrifices, forgoing a potential career in the army. While talking with a recruiter at her high school, she learns that signing up does not necessarily guarantee her a paycheck right away. She is politely let down by the recruiter, and leaves the office solemn and silent. Ree’s own uncle, a hollow-faced junkie named Teardrop (John Hawkes), holds her at gunpoint to try and scare her out of snooping. Her refusal to quit searching aggravates the locals. They constantly threaten (and sometimes exact) violence on her, yet she never gives in. Her focus and humility defrock the material-driven, catty American girl stereotype.
Of course the tale of a teenager, toughened by rough beginnings and defying the odds, isn’t new, but Ree’s situation is unique because of the setting. Winter’s Bone feels strange and wholly American at the same time. It poses the same alienation similar to Deliverance and No Country for Old Men, where the locals take the law into their own hands and the law fears the locals. Where one wrong turn, one insult or snub, can have you fed to the pigs. But don’t expect to watch this film and experience the same loud thrills and chills of an adventurous Western or detective film. It is, in its own right, quietly suspenseful, and works its way into the marrow. Ree’s folk seem capable of anything, both good and evil. Granik has made a gritty, realistic movie that documents, rather than fabricates, the lives of Ree and the people around her.