By Kevin Kelly (reprinted from 2/2/2010 -- Sundance Film Festival)
"Redneck" or "country noir" isn't anything new. Just look at Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men as examples. But when you replace the grizzled detective or outdated lawman with a 17-year-old girl trying to take care of her family, that's where things swing wildly off course in Winter's Bone. Jennifer Lawrence previously impressed in Lori Petty's autobiographical film The Poker House, and she turns in an incredibly powerful performance in this movie, directed by Debra Granik and based on Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name, that explores the dark nature of family and secrets in the Ozark Mountains. It won both the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic category and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award, and is well-deserving of both.
Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is busy trying to take care of her younger brother and sister, her nearly catatonic mother, and a bevy of stray cats and dogs in a ramshackle cabin out in the boondocks when she's visited by the sheriff who has some unsettling news: Her father has put up both the land and the house for his bond for cooking crystal meth, and if he doesn't show up for his court date, they'll lose everything. So Ree has to find him before the law does, or before some of the other unsavory characters that live in this no man's land.
Ree goes to family members for initial help, but when Uncle "Teardrop" (John Hawkes) warns her off, she knows this isn't going to be easy. Of course she doesn't leave well enough alone (how can she?), and the deeper she digs, the more dangerous it gets. She's threatened with violence for trying to talk to "Thump," and when she doesn't listen things turn violent. It doesn't matter to Thump or his circle that Ree is family, however distant, and the audience quickly learns that life out here is all about keeping secrets. Blood may be thicker than water, but the almighty dollar trumps them both.
Ree has no one to turn to, save for one friend with a baby who has to beg her husband for his truck to give Ree a ride. Her brother and sister are too young to understand, her mother can't help, and everyone else including the law is searching for her father. It's a hopeless situation, exacerbated by the fact that they have no money, hardly any food, and no relief in sight. Ree's backup plan is to join the Army to receive a $40,000 stipend, but she quickly finds out that might not come for months, and that she can't bring her siblings with her, let alone take care of her mother.
In spite of all this, and with the only option left to sell the land and the woods to the lumber companies, Ree grits her teeth and presses on. She's the very definition of defiance and perseverance, and Lawrence captures that perfectly in a performance that is full of rage, sensitivity, love, and hatred. The thought of moving her family somewhere else isn't even a question, and they're too proud to beg. As she admonishes her younger brother of, "Don't ask for what should be offered."
This is by no means an action-packed film. It's slow, methodical, and it steeps itself in the world-weary existence that Ree and her family are stuck in. It's not a sympathetic film either, where you're just wishing and hoping that Ree could somehow escape this life and move on to something better. Ree is an Ozark girl, through and through, and she puts family above all else, even when it puts herself in peril. There are some extremely grisly moments to be found here, but the most horrifying ones are realizing that for a whole group of Americans, this is just everyday life.