Winter’s Bone is a savage journey quest, one girl’s descent through the bowels of a rust-belt backwoods Hell to find her father or a corpse she can drag home. It’s Alice in Wonderland if she were crawling through a river of shit. When her father, in jail for his third conviction for manufacture of crystal meth, skips out on his bail after putting the house up for collateral, his eldest daughter and caretaker of the family has to track him down. A stark and bleak drama winding through the rural poor regions of the Ozarks, Winter’s Bone shows the horrid underbelly of the beastial illegal drug cookery and so-called hillbilly mafia while paying true homage to the South. These aren’t some redneck hicks with a Git R’ Done sticker on their pickup. These are the motherfuckers with the thousand yard stare who train their kids to blast you between the eyes with a squirrel hunting rifle and feed what’s left of you to the hogs. Debra Granik, fresh from the success of Down to the Bone which brought Vera Farmiga to our attention, gives an unflinching frankness to this spectacular and haunting hymn built on the shoulders of her outstanding young lead actress. Like a chill winter wind scattering the last clinging leaves of autumn, Winter’s Bone will get under your skin and deep into your bones.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has it harder than a coal miner’s daughter’s lovely lady lumps. Her mother is catatonic, so at 16, Ree’s left to raise her two younger siblings on her own. Her father works in the family business, cooking meth for his many cousins and other distant relatives that cover the mountain, trading jail sentences and asswhoopings. Ree’s life ambition is to join up with the army for a five year junket and earn the $40,000 signing bonus. So when Sheriff Baskin (an almost unrecognizable Garret Dillahunt) shows up looking for her father, Ree discovers that she’ll have to rely on the unkindness of family to find her dad or his body. Ree starts out on her journey, shaking trees and pissing off the regulars. Threats quickly turn to sudden violence as Ree stubbornly tries to plow every avenue in the hope of saving her house. Her uncle, Teardrop (the fucking staggering John Hawkes), her pop’s best pal, is like a coiled serpent, lashing out at her and choking her — because he cares so much about her he wants her to keep free of the criminal slurry festering in the hinterlands. Ree’s trek gets bleaker and ugly and more dangerous as she digs deeper into the countryside.
What I respected most about Winter’s Bone is the frontier mentality rather than falling into the simplicity of the dangerous redneck mindset. Working from the novel by Daniel Woodnell, Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini populate their wonderland with a bevy of wicked figures. There’s not a single white knight to be found in the town. Everything’s gray about Winter’s Bone, even the morality. And Ree’s got some savage kinfolk. Sure, while there are some folk’ll lose toe, these characters are the ones most likely to have taken it from you. There are cunning monsters in them thar woods, who’ve built an industry on crystal meth cooking and fuel it with shovel beatings, hatchets, and double-barrel justice.
But the acting is what makes Winter’s Bone so outstanding. It’s essentially an ensemble piece centered around young Ree. Most of the actors are relative unknowns or familiar character faces, but they imbue all the various figures with a southern dignity. A particular standout is John Hawkes, who’ve you seen recently on “Lost” as Dogen’s translator Lennon and not recently enough on “Deadwood.” Hawkes has always been a go-to guy for solid character performances, but Teardrop is unlike anything I’ve seen from him before. Usually Hawkes plays a little towards the nerdish side, but here he’s all spitfire and venom. There’s constantly an undercurrent of violence crackling just beneath the surface. But even he gets outshone by the luminous Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence’s most recognizable credit is Lauren on “The Bill Engvall Show,” but this will be her breakout performance. She embodies Ree with a stubborn fury, but still manages to capture the frustration and fear of a teenager. She’s a child who’s been forced to become a woman early, and she honestly maneuvers the sea change with grace and class. You can see the world weariness sagging on her shoulders and in her bitter stare.
Winter’s Bone is depressing, like a midwinter’s blizzard that seems never ending because there’s still so much winter left to endure. Ree isn’t ever sure if her father has left them, or been murdered, or has simply disappeared. And so as she tracks him, it’s on a fruitless, miserable journey, and not one fit for a young girl still in high school. The truth gets buried, and when it’s finally unearthed, it gets hurled in your face, and you’re expected to weather the blistering shock with nary a wink. It’s so much to ask of an adult, but Ree’s just a child. And yet this child, performed with stunning stoicism by Jennifer Lawrence, will be one of the best performances you get the chance to see all this year.
This review was originally published during cover of SXSW, but is being re-posted in advance of its limited release tomorrow.