In the Ozarks, as depicted by filmmaker Debra Granik, a woman who asks for help is courting the mercy or brutality of men. To ask questions is to invite trouble. And though it is the fathers, brothers and husbands who hold all the power in the Missouri-Arkansas borderlands where Winter's Bone is set, it is the women who struggle to define family, community, and even justice.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong-willed, no-nonsense 17-year-old struggling to take care of her catatonic mother and two young siblings. When the sheriff informs her that her meth-cooking dad has jumped bail, and the bondsman tells her he put their ramshackle house up for collateral, the thin lifeline that keeps Ree's family together is in danger of snapping. Winter is looming and their hardscrabble existence just became impossible. With only a week or so to set things right, Ree decides to track Dad down, which challenges her rural community's code of silence and brings her up against some very dangerous kinsfolk. As a neighbor reminds the teenager, asking too many questions "is a real good way to get 'et by hogs."
From suspicious townsfolk to Ree's menacing uncle (John Hawkes) to the hard-bitten wife (Dale Dickey) of the man who oversees the local drug trade, Granik makes it clear that the threat of violence is ever present. Her film's bleak setting, moody soundtrack, brooding cinematography and tightly coiled characters create an inescapable atmosphere of anxiety, though we're never quite sure what to fear. Granik takes classic noir tropes — an investigator encounters ever-darker and more violent personalities — and convincingly applies them to the near-documentary grittiness of her gothic tragedy (taken from a novel by Daniel Woodrell). While Winter's Bone may stumble over its clunky expository dialogue and off-screen plot twists, Ree's situation never feels less than urgent, drawing us deeper and deeper into her situation, encouraging us to root for her victory — however meager it might be.
Granik avoids backwoods caricatures and instead quietly and carefully paints a relentlessly harsh and morally desolate society where poverty and insularity are a given. Family and kin are constantly mentioned, but it's money and secrecy that override all other considerations. Winter's Bone is filled with sharp and subtle details — such as Ree's interview with an Army recruiter painfully reminding us of her age and naiveté — that build tension and create an ominous sense of despair. Tough as she may be, Ree is outmatched by the world she was born into.
But what makes Granik's film even more interesting is the way the women Ree encounters sidestep, warn against and even enforce her community's male-dominated power hierarchy. Though it's the men who can ultimately help or hurt her the most, it's the women who act as the gatekeepers to her fate. Every bit as hard as their male counterparts, they deliver both brutal beat-downs and grim justice. In fact, it is the women who ultimately enforce Winter's Bone's pound-of-flesh metaphor, forcing Ree to face the horrifying reality and incalculable sorrow of parental loss.
Lawrence, who is convincingly guarded and watchful, is the perfect vehicle for both Ree's fear and courageous resolve. In an environment where death and decay hide in every corner, hers is a march toward more than just survival; Ree seeks life. The young actress is terrific and has deservedly attracted notice. But as good as she is, it's Hawkes who mesmerizes as Uncle Teardrop. Dangerous but human, his character struggles to balance the criminal code of his community with his responsibility to his family. Hawkes plays him with deadly stillness and unpredictably, delivering a spring-loaded performance that mesmerizes.
Somber but never sentimental, jaundiced but not hopeless, Winter's Bone is an achingly real portrait of family loyalty, social corruption and the will to survive.
Opens Friday at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].