An altogether astonishing film, not in the least because Winter’s Bone lives up to the hype—or so nearly that it makes no difference. And no one is more surprised than I. When I read the plot synopsis—17-year-old Ozark girl out to find her missing meth-cooking/drug-dealing/bail-jumping father (dead or alive) to save what passes for the old homestead—I can’t say it occurred to me that this was what I’d been waiting for. (Upon reflection, I doubt such a scenario would make a list of top 10,000 things I’d like to see.) A bare reading of the premise does not represent the film, nor does it begin to convey the tone.
Winter’s Bone is considerably more than the five reels of hard luck it sounds like it’s going to be. It’s also not the usual over-praised indie darling that comes along once or twice a year to catch the attention of moviegoers who think “entertainment” is a dirty word. Winter’s Bone actually is entertaining, and it’s also a compelling drama with believable characters and a true sense of urgency. If you step back from it, you realize that the saving-the-family-home premise is in itself nothing but the hoariest of barnstorming melodrama—the kind of thing that was starting to be considered quaint around 1920. It’s what is done with it in Winter’s Bone that makes it different.
At the top of the list of what makes Winter’s Bone work is the film’s main character, Ree Dolly, and the way the character is played by Jennifer Lawrence (TV’s The Bill Engvall Show). Ree is an unusual lead character: a 17-year-old girl who manages to be remarkable by not being obviously remarkable in any way. Ree is someone who does what she does because she sees nothing else she can do. She has no capacity for self-pity and no concept of intellectualizing her situation (in other words, she doesn’t talk like a character out of a 1930s “problem” novel). Her poverty just is. Her mother’s out-of-it mental state has caused Ree to be the caretaker of her younger brother and sister. This is just how things are. So when it transpires that her errant father has jumped bail, leaving the family to be thrown out of their home, which he used as security, it never occurs to Ree to do anything other than find him—or his corpse. This, too, is just how things are.
What holds the story in place and commands our attention is the journey Ree has to take to find her father. This is a trip from the land of the merely impoverished into that of a criminal subculture borne of poverty. The people she encounters—many of them related in some way to her—are deeply distrustful of everyone. It’s an enclosed society that isn’t above killing in order to protect itself. In fact, Ree runs that risk at every turn. At one point in the film, she even asks a hostile group if they plan to kill her, and is off-handedly told that it’s “been discussed.” I’ve seen her journey into this world described as an odyssey, but it oftentimes seems like a descent into hell. But it’s a hell Ree doesn’t question or flinch at entering, because she has no choice.
While all this undoubtedly sounds very grim—and it is (right down to a solution that would be at home in a horror movie)—grimness isn’t the overriding tone by any means. Survival and a quiet sense of humanity are what finally pervade the film. The last scene is the defining one—and I don’t mean the ironic windfall, but the human interaction among family members in which much is said with very few words exchanged. (These are not chatty people.) Without this, the film might be unbearable. With it, it’s almost unbearably beautiful. Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.