Winter’s Bone offers a complete immersion in its Ozark Mountains setting, which is so foreign it might as well be a different planet. Like the nightmare spawn of Deliverance country, it’s a run-down, wooded rubble strewn area full of cluttered lawns and small decaying single-level homes. Populated by worn, grizzled individuals and illicit drug-growing facilities, it’s the bleakest imaginable locale.
It’s certainly no place for a teenage girl as headstrong and self-aware as Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who, stricken with a sick mother and absent father, is forced to care for her younger siblings. When she learns that her drug-dealing dad has skipped bail after placing the family home as collateral, she embarks on an odyssey through redneck country to find him.
Bathed in a perpetual gray haze, the film evokes the surreal, gruff nature of the locale, the sense that it and its inhabitants are locked in a constant state of conflict. Ree visits various rough hewn couples, gets talked down to, screamed at, abused and subjected to mounting pressures. All the while she remains steadfast and focused on the task at hand, quiet and unfazed by the turmoil surrounding her.
Lawrence gives a performance of subtle strength, projecting a calm exterior that effectively clashes with the inescapable fact that Ree is still so young. Forced to make decisions no one her age should be making, thinking about her family’s financial welfare, she sits down with an army recruiter who discourages her from joining for the money. The actress never seems overwhelmed by the hubbub, remaining true to director/co-writer Debra Granik’s vision of the character as a beacon of consistent goodness and hope in a dark world.
The presentation of that universe occasionally hews towards clichés, with an impromptu banjo performance of “Little Sparrow” and threatening, greasy long-haired ruffians playing significant parts. Still, Granik deftly guides her protagonist through the milieu, opting for restraint where a lesser filmmaker might have sought melodrama. Sadness radiates authentically from every scene, with the narrative’s slow advance mirroring the glum conditions of Ozark life. The rest of the ensemble, which includes the terrific John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, engages in the sort of full-fledged transformation the picture demands.
Still, this is Lawrence’s show, the movie that will be most remembered for introducing her as an actor to watch. She anchors the production, giving it its human face and presenting a tangible figure for the audience’s empathy. The movie wrings its pathos from dual realizations spurred by her work: first, that this remarkable person, too smart for her surroundings, has been forced to sacrifice her future and second, that she’s done so willingly, driven by her deep love for her family. The picture resonates thanks to its comprehensive portrait of her remarkable, sustained act of courage, and the depth the actress lends it.