Traversing Ozark culture in search of her dad
The gritty, desperate Ozarks milieu of “Winter’s Bone’’ feels so real, so right, that you only slowly realize you’re watching a detective movie. It’s those noir bones that give this social-realist drama its punch, as if Humphrey Bogart had been recast as a 17-year-old girl and dropped into the poorest corner of America.
The setting may seem familiar if you saw last year’s estimable art-house hit “Frozen River.’’ Same numbing poverty, same hard women and no-account men holding on by their fingernails in shacks and trailers on rutted back roads. The people in “Winter’s Bone’’ are meaner, though, and more proudly, even criminally, reclusive. They’re umpteenth-generation mountain folk, but the moonshine stills have given way to meth labs, and the revenuers are now sheriffs in sleek county police cars.
The place of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in this society is set: She’s a woman, so she’s meant to take whatever comes, and she’s still a kid, so she doesn’t matter. But her mother has left the building — present in body, she’s a vacant shell of a woman — and the two little ones, brother and sister, need caring for. So Ree chops the wood and feeds the kids and holds the family together because that’s what you do. She’s pretty but probably not for much longer.
There’s a dad, Jessup, but he’s nowhere to be found, and the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is looking for him because a court date is coming up. If he fails to show, the county takes the house, so Ree embarks on a search that takes her deeper and higher into her brutal, closed-off community than she’s ever meant to go.
The men here have names like Little Arthur and Thump Milton, and they won’t be spoken to by a girl. Instead, their women deal with Ree, warn her off, and administer the occasional beating. Dale Dickey, as Merab, the clan’s queen bee, emerges as a dead-faced figure of violence and Olympian judgment. Like any good film noir hero, Ree takes it and keeps on coming, burrowing steadily toward the mystery of her father’s whereabouts. She doesn’t earn respect so much as convince the others of the self-respect she already has.
“Winter’s Bone’’ is the second film to be directed by Debra Granik — the first, 2004’s “Down to the Bone,’’ established actress Vera Farmiga as a force to be reckoned with — and it’s based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The film’s strengths, though, are cinematic; not in terms of showy camerawork (there is none) but as a visualization of place that is unsparing in detail and coiled mood. It’s the same landscape you can see through a pickup truck window in a Lucinda Williams song: cars on blocks and dogs, dogs, dogs; neighbors who are unstinting with Christian charity so long as you don’t ask questions. Teenage brides and angry husbands. Ree knows full well the rules she’s breaking.
Lawrence is a young actress who has hovered around the edges of films (“The Burning Plain’’) and TV shows (“The Bill Engvall Show’’), and she gives a quietly tough performance with no wasted gestures. Ree gets glimpses of a larger world out there but understands it has no place or time for her; a visit to an Army recruitment office is an essay in black comedy in which Ree realizes she knows more about life’s harshness than the recruiter ever will.
As the heroine’s uncle, a drug addict and jailbird named Teardrop, John Hawkes grows from a two-dimensional thug to a bruised lost soul bound by blood and vengeance. He’s family, and in this story, that’s important; through Teardrop and Ree we see generations of mountain culture stretching back to the past and forward into the future. That he chooses to help his niece is one of the more terrifying developments in “Winter’s Bone,’’ but he sets an example of how not to live one’s life and he gets Ree to where she needs to go.
Where that is — the resolution of her father’s disappearance — is the nightmare swamp the movie slowly works up to, and by then we’re as white-knuckled in the dark as Ree. The difference is that she can take it. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler: Down these mean dirt roads a girl must go.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.