A teenage girl’s resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles just barely wards off the icy chill that cuts through “Winter’s Bone,” director Debra Granik’s bleak and exemplary sophomore feature. Following its brave heroine (an outstanding Jennifer Lawrence) as she seeks to uncover the truth behind her father’s disappearance, the film employs the structure of a whodunit to take a tough, unflinching look at an impoverished Ozarks community ruled by the local drug trade. Raw but utterly enveloping, “Bone” more than merits the patient distrib attention that’s become an increasingly rare commodity in the indie marketplace.
Sparely adapted by Granik and producer Anne Rosellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film amply confirms the low-budget artistry and skill with actors Granik evinced in her coincidentally similar-in-title debut, “Down to the Bone,” which won the directing award at Sundance in 2004. In its frigid rural setting (the Missouri Ozarks, where the film was entirely shot) and its story of a woman prepared to cross social and legal boundaries to keep her house and family intact, “Winter’s Bone” also bears a resemblance to another Sundance prize winner, 2008’s “Frozen River.”
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With her mother in a near-catatonic state and her father in jail for cooking methamphetamine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence, “The Burning Plain”) is used to taking care of herself and her younger brother and sister — chopping wood from the family’s several acres of timberland and, with some help from the neighbors, just managing to put food on the table. Their already-fragile existence is further threatened when the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father, Jessup, has been released from prison and that their house and land — which Jessup had signed away as collateral — will be seized if he fails to show up for his scheduled court appearance.
Determined not to let that happen, and unfazed by rumors that Jessup died in a meth-brewing accident, Ree tries to discover her father’s whereabouts from members of his crooked circle. But every door she knocks on is answered by someone more hostile than the last, from Jessup’s gruff brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes, excellent), who warns her to mind her own business, to tough broad Merab (Dale Dickey), who’s not above resorting to physical cruelty to keep Ree from finding out too much.
As the circumstances surrounding Jessup’s fate come to light, the pic unveils a conspiracy that exposes the community’s insidious, near-tribal culture of illegal trade, rigid obedience and barely sublimated violence. The tale resolves itself in satisfying fashion, yet without giving away all its mysteries; indeed, the world Granik, lenser Michael McDonough and production designer Mark White have captured — an open junkyard where trailers and cottages are all but indistinguishable from the surrounding scrap heaps — conveys such a bone-deep sense of place, it’s hard not to imagine (even hope) that it harbors yet more evil secrets waiting to be discovered.
The film’s atmosphere of suspicion, foreboding and everyday misery would be too much to bear if not for the rich emotional anchor supplied by Lawrence. Emphasizing Ree’s patience, maturity and love for her siblings as much as her tenacity and courage, Lawrence delivers a striking portrait of someone who, though looked down upon by many for her youth and gender, alone seems to possess the guts and smarts necessary to survive and possibly even escape her surroundings. Dickey is formidably scary as a clan mother of sorts, while Hawkes brings considerable gravitas and tightly constricted emotion to his role as an uncle forced to decide where his true allegiances lie.
Script’s language has a harsh, bitter tang and plain-spoken eloquence appropriate to its Southern milieu. Shooting on a grayish palette, McDonough keeps the camera focused on Lawrence and cranks up the vague sense of menace by often framing her in the foreground as others approach her from behind.