Winter’s Bone, Grand Jury prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages. It’s dreary and dark and sometimes difficult to watch– and if directed by less tempered hands than Debra Granik’s, the story could have devolved into a tale of unremitting misery. Miserable things do happen in this film and it’s sobering to face the fact that its characters live in this century, and in this country–but it’s also a film of overpowering beauty. The performances of the relatively unknown actors, especially the young Jennifer Lawrence, are so true to life, it’s like you’re living with them in their isolated world, not watching actors on a screen. The script, based on the superb short novel by Daniel Woodrell is flawless, unrolling without hesitation like a tightly wrought coil. You leave the theatre almost in a trance because you can feel in your bones that you’ve just experienced a rare and beautiful piece of work.
In a grimy slice of the Missouri Ozarks, seventeen-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has never really known what it’s like to be a typical American teenager. With her father Jessup Dolly and every other member of her extended family involved in the rural methamphetamine subculture, what Ree knows is isolation, poverty, violence, and a shallow morality based on ancient codes of honor. And now her father, a skilled meth cook who only stays away from home when he is in jail or visiting his girlfriend, has been missing for days.
Ree dreams of escape into the Army, but fears she will end up rooted to the hills like the hundred-year old trees on her property. Her mother has been dysfunctional for years, her mind warped from the grinding misery and too many drugs. Her two siblings, a boy and a girl, are too young to take care of themselves. Fearful of a future that promises nothing different from the past, Ree is obsessed with teaching them survival skills–how to fry potatoes and make stew, how to shoot a rifle, how to skin a squirrel. Her burdens are heavy but Ree is unflinching in her determination to do what has to be done.
Across the creek, neighbors have hung up dead deer on the porch and are gutting them. The children watch the activity hungrily, wanting to go over and beg for some meat. “You don’t ask for anything that ought to be given,” Ree admonishes them, voicing one of the ingrained civilities by which she lives her life.
A too-nervous sheriff’s deputy (Garrett Dillahunt) arrives, looking for her father, but even if she did know where he was, Ree would never tell the law anything. Then the deputy lays a bombshell–on his last arrest, her father put up the house and their precious timberland for bail. If he doesn’t return in time for his court appearance in a week, everything will be lost. They’ll be homeless, forced to live like wild animals in one of the nearby caves.
Ree already had to give away her horse for lack of feed, so she sets out on foot to find her father. She tries to trace his most recent history, from his only brother Teardrop (John Hawkes) and other fellow meth makers, to his old girlfriend, all the way to the patriarch of the crime family, a rich and vicious old man named Blond Milton (William White), who runs his odious empire as if he were still giving orders in Vietnam. His wife Merab (Dale Dickey), a mountain Lady Macbeth, warns Ree not to bother her husband again. Ree, who felt that family ties would be all the reason anyone would need to help her, is devastated by the ice-cold receptions she gets.
The men in Ree’s world are as bleak and ragged as the leafless trees. Most of them are military vets, filled with the memories of blood and meanness that followed them home like angry ghosts. The women, usually mothers before senior year in high school like her friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), are as vicious as trapped predators. They don’t garden for the love of flowers, or cook for the pleasure of new tastes. They don’t read and they haven’t danced in decades. Old before their time, these women resent Ree’s youth and good looks. Mostly they hate her for her basic goodness, a miraculous accomplishment considering her upbringing, and a threat to all of them who lost their goodness a long time ago.
The longer Ree looks for her father, the more she rattles the cage of secrecy that locks the meth crowd together. She pays for her persistence by a vicious beating in the old man’s barn–at the hands of Merab and her sisters. Her uncle Teardrop rescues her, but in doing so, he promises the men that he will be responsible for her– if Ree steps out of line again–the men will seek vengeance on him.
By now it’s painfully obvious what happened to Jessup. Someone killed him. Teardrop warns Ree if she finds out who killed her father, she must never tell him, because that knowledge will be his own death sentence–he would have no choice but to kill his brother’s murderer–and get killed himself in the process.
If her father is dead, Ree learns, the bail bond is null and void. What she has to do now is somehow prove her father is dead. Now Winter’s Bone moves into even darker territory, almost as if, inevitably, it had sunk into a horror story territory. Stay with it. Horror it’s not. Winter’s Bone is really a Greek tragedy in Ozark dress and in the end, the humanity it portrays is so unforgettable it’s almost transcendent. Don’t miss this film.