“He cooks crank.”
“They all do now.”
A girl only 17-years of age shouldn’t have to do these sort of things, and yet Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, with a face that still blooms with youth but eyes as hard as history) takes to her unasked-for responsibilities with a brand of stoic resignation that comes only from bred-in-the-bone poverty. One look at the stunted Ozarks hills (so wistfully referred to in Missouri at times as “mountains”) and tumbledown shacks where Debra Granik filmed Winter’s Bone, and it’s clear exactly how far afield Ree’s expectations can afford to roam. The trees are as bare as the trash cars that litter the landscape, their branches like prison bars – Ree is just doing her time.
Since Ree’s mother Connie is near-comatose in some undiagnosed mental fog and her father perpetually on the run from the law and various extractors of revenge, it’s left to her to raise her younger brother and sister. This means bundling them off to school in the mornings – in this landscape, Ree not attending school anymore seems perfectly natural – and showing them how to fend for themselves (basic cooking lessons, a quick tutorial in using a squirrel gun and also skinning and gutting the squirrel afterward) just in case something happens to herself. Ree has to worry about that since her father, Jessup, has just skipped his court date and if he doesn’t turn up soon then the bondsman is going to take the Dollys’ house and land, which Jessup put up as collateral. To keep that from happening, Ree heads out to find Jessup before anybody else does.
Granik’s film, her second feature after 2004’s Down to the Bone, shares more than a few similarities with that astounding debut. Winter’s Bone has an unerring feel for the details of living poor that’s frequently missed these days — particularly in American indie cinema, which has of late trended away from this kind of naturalism for mumblecore-style navel-gazing. (One fantastic scene has Ree chasing down a lead at a house at night where several people are sitting around picking out some gorgeously plaintive bluegrass numbers; it would have been great to have more of this material on the DVD release, which features some deleted scenes, an audio commentary by Granik, and a video for an instrumental piece from the soundtrack.) It also has a ferocious presence in its female lead, who is set loose in a dangerous world of sharp corners where men seem to hold all the strings but women are the ones who actually keep the machinery of life’s rhythms functioning.
Winter’s Bone, however, feels much more plotted than the earlier film. The screenplay, taken from a novel by Daniel Woodrell — who also penned the novel Ang Lee used for his Missouri-set Western Ride With the Devil — has a tarter edge to it, and a great deal more plotting. Ree’s circular journeys in search of her father make her into a hill country detective of sorts, having to face down all manner of jumped-up criminals and crooked lawmen just to get some answers. With each encounter, Ree both discovers more about her father, a shady character who didn’t seem to be able to find a partner he couldn’t infuriate and a deal he couldn’t ruin, and also finds his image to become less and less distinct.
The line between family and enemy is blurred to nonexistence here in these hardscrabble hills where everybody seems to have some kind of operation going on, and reasons to distrust the law. Everybody’s a cousin or somebody with whom the Dollys have a history, and bloodlines aren’t necessarily any guarantee. When Ree goes to her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes, brilliant), she doesn’t at first find help but a man who’s eager to see her gone. A rattlesnake-thin, gun-toting, speed-sniffing blade of nasty, Teardrop has no job to speak of (nobody does in these hills, it seems) and seemingly little family loyalty, but it isn’t long before he’s grudgingly trailing Ree and serving as her quiet, coiled muscle. Not the nicest family member, but a good guy for Ree to have around when she starts questioning the likes of Thump, a feared old codger who rebuffs her attempts to ask after Jessup since, as one of his minions puts it, “talkin’ just causes witnesses.”
Where this film can’t unfortunately live up to Down to the Bone is its lack of an equivalent to that film’s star, Vera Farmiga. Lawrence certainly does incredible work here, playing her cards close to the vest and rarely going for the cheap emotional tradeoff. As the improbably self-assured teen navigating the tangled clan allegiances and assorted dangers of this claustrophobic, interconnected world (Ree can barely knock on one person’s door before the whole valley has heard about it down the lightning-speed gossip network), Lawrence puts a host of would-be Bogarts to shame. But whereas the loose story of Down to the Bone which gave Farmiga so much room to maneuver in, Lawrence navigates a tightly-plotted tale of one encounter after encounter that leaves her without as much freedom to explore her character.
Nevertheless, what Granik and Lawrence (as well as Hawkes, an actor to watch) create here is a deeply naturalistic brand of high lonesome noir, where the gangsters tend their livestock in the day and play plaintive songs in living rooms at night, turning their backs on an outside world they’re convinced has no room for the likes of them.