A perfunctory peek at the précis and pedigree of Winter's Bone might set off certain alarms for more jaded cinephiles, along the lines of, "Yeah, yeah, won an award at Sundance, takes place and was shot in the Missouri Ozarks, lotta poor people, granola movie for sure." I have to admit, I myself saw one or two reviews/descriptions and went into my default cynical mode, recalling, as I'm apt to do, Nabokov's description/parody of gaunt naturalism with its immortal imagined dialogue "He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy." Well, shame on me, I guess, because the second feature from director Debra Granik (who cowrote the script with her producing partner Anne Rossellini, adapting a novel by Daniel Woodrell) is a superb, genuinely engrossing work from stem to stern. It's a richly detailed and disturbing portrait of a decaying environment and a fantastic, moving character study that proceeds with the deliberate pace of a first-rate thriller. Actually, in a sense it is a first rate thriller, or suspense picture, or mystery story, or what have you. As the film opens, teen Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) gets word that her absent dad, who's got a court date coming up, put the house that Ree lives in with her zonked-out mom and two younger siblings up for his bond, and that if he doesn't show up for that court date, the house won't be the family's to live in anymore. Ree had been planning to escape the misery of her existence—her surroundings being struggling farms and makeshift crystal meth factories, her dad being a sometime proprietor of the latter, which is whence his legal troubles stem—by up and joining the army, but she puts that plan on hold to try and track down her missing dad and secure something for her family's continued survival.
Not only can Dee not count on the kindness of strangers, her own kinfolk can hardly be said to be generous in that department herself. Her wiry, inked, jangly-nerved uncle, known only as "Teardrop," (John Hawkes, superb as ever) at first irritably advises her to mind her own business, and throws a little cash her way. Everywhere she goes, she's advised by people with fewer and fewer teeth, or so it seems, that she ought not be poking around there. Do they know where her dad is? Is he, in fact, dead? Ree not only doesn't take "no" for an answer, she's a first-rate amateur detective: taken to the place where someone's trying to convince her that her dad was killed in a fire at mere days before, she takes one look at the weeds springing from what should be parched ground and makes no bones about telling her guide that he's full of shit. That kind of attitude is going to get this girl in some trouble, to be sure.
It is in fact the way she seems to almost court trouble that makes this character a whole lot more than a rural plaster saint. Playing against her super-model good looks (which have been rhapsodized about in not-unexpected corners), Jennifer Lawrence convinces with every step as she plays Ree as resourceful (and boy, is she ever, the way she teaches her younger sister and brother to not just hunt but to skin and cook...ugh...squirrel), thoroughly ballsy, and almost exasperatingly heedless. (Viewers who know her only from her work on...wait for it...The Bill Engvall Show will be thoroughly surprised. But I do wonder how many people who watch The Bill Engvall Show will even be aware that this film exists.)
As wonderful and unforgettable as the character and the performance are, it's the film's depiction of the region that's truly scarring. Novelist Woodrell also wrote Woe To Live On, the Missouri-set CIvil War novel that formed the basis for Ang Lee's superb Ride With The Devil, and his work is known to be both deeply felt and deeply researched. Granik follows him onto his turf superbly. That economic deprivation is the root of all evil, the evil in this case being crystal meth manufacture, is stated plainly but hardly oversold here; and how this form of crime destroys families, and wears away at traditions and ways of life is put across in varied detailed scenes that seethe with immediacy and authenticity rather than dry didacticism. It's, how do you say, organic, and that quality is one of the things that makes this as far from being a "granola film" as you can imagine. (It's weird, I know, because granola is often organic itself. But you know...) The film opens in "selected markets," as they say, tomorrow, and I'd say it's well worth your time.