Rawly intense, immersive, and uncomfortably punishing in its bleak, craggy-faced ambitions, Winter’s Bone is an acutely gripping, grimy thriller that is spectacular for its humanity and heart-stopping urgency. It’s utterly enveloping and perfectly controlled, a genuine triumph, an instant Southern Gothic classic.
Ree Dolly is the iron-tough teenage scion of an Ozark extended family of bootleggers, outlaws, and meth-cookers. She cares for her younger sister and brother in their remote mountain cabin. Her mother is worse than AWOL: she’s present with no capacity to assist. Ree’s thoroughly disreputable father has gone missing, and before disappearing, he put up their house and 300 acres of land to make bail. She has a week to find him – dead or alive – before her family becomes homeless.
Winter’s Bone is dominated first and foremost by Jennifer Lawrence’s luminous and incredible performance as the resourceful, much-tested Ree. Tenacious and stoic, she’s as fearsome as Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, taking on monsters to protect the small and the vulnerable, holding her own in a vernacular that’s equal parts hillbilly and hard-boiled.
Working with, behind, and beyond Lawrence is writer-director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone), who captures the starkness of the Ozarks in a free-flowing and pensive way that transfers the chill of it all on to the screen. In an impeccable act of sympathetic imagination, Granik has entered into the soul of debt-ridden Appalachia. Her film doesn’t live above these people, but among them. Her vivid reworking (along with co-writer Anne Rosellini) of Daniel Woodrell’s novel brings the book to searing life in a piece of unhurried filmmaking that’s been rare for years. It’s undeniably Granik’s greatest achievement yet.
With a level-gazed approach to its milieu, empathetic but clear-eyed, Winter’s Bone balances the pace and intrigue of a thriller with total compassion for Ree. It’s as quiet and unflinching as a snake, as rugged and fascinating as the characters who eke out a life amid its cold, gray hills. Every frame has a haunting, austere beauty and establishes a formidable tension between mystery and matter-of-factness.
Winter’s Bone has an arthouse soul inside a B-picture body. It’s a chilling and challenging visit into a remote, even alien, world. It’s so far past any notion of formula or precedent that comparison is a futile exercise; if pressed, the only parallel that comes to mind would be Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor (in fact, the ending practically screams the latter). Underwritten by the constant threat of violence, it’s an absorbing and socially conscious piece of work, a great movie with astounding performances natural and unforgettable, a bleakly realist drama about a community decimated by poverty and hopelessness – yet bound together by ties of class, gender, and blood.
As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has virtually no peer, and Winter’s Bone is the one of the year’s most stirring films. Lived-in and non-ideological, it’s one of the great feminist works in film and one of the unshowiest and most true-blooded epics of Americana you’re ever likely to see. With frightening, crookedly poetic realism, it’s a masterpiece of sparseness that never hits a false note.