The main character of Winter’s Bone (2010), 17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is as tough as old boot leather. She lives up in the Missouri Ozarks with her mama, who is physically present but mentally absent, her twelve-year old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and her six-year old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Her father Jessup has been missing for some time, and the story begins when Ree gets told that her father has to show up for court or they’re going to lose their house. Jessup put it up as bond for bail money.
It’s well known that Ree’s father cooks methamphetamine and that he’s been in trouble with the law before. Now that he is missing and the immediate safety of her family is threatened, Ree goes looking for him, asking a lot of uncomfortable questions of some very dangerous people.
Ree is shown right from the start as self-sufficient and strong in the sense that she does what has to be done. In her case that means taking care of her mother and her siblings, chopping wood and hunting squirrel and trying to make ends meet. There are poignant instances where Ree is taking her siblings to school and then looking in through the doors of the classrooms with something like longing in her eyes, showing plainly that she knows what she has to give up for her family.
Ree goes in search of her father, talking to relatives and people her father has had dealings with all over the community. She forms an uneasy alliance with her volatile uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) in trying to get to the truth, though it’s pretty clear right from the get-go that her father is gone for good, if not dead.
One of the more interesting things about this story is that even if the culture is portrayed as predominantly and pretty aggressively patriarchal, the women are given a lot of weight and substance. Most everywhere Ree goes she is greeted at the door by the wives and girlfriends of the men she has to ask questions of, and they are all cast in the same tough-as-nails Cerberus dye. The region’s patriarch Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall) is guarded by his spouse Merab (Dale Dickey), who also delivers an almighty beating to Ree when she won’t stop her investigation.
This is a tale of family, perseverance and doing what has to be done and Ree is undoubtedly a heroine in the most basic and best sense of the word. Jennifer Lawrence gives her portrayal of Ree all the gravitas and subtlety you could hope for, showing both her strength and her weakness, her fear and her deep and abiding sense of loyalty without it ever becoming overly sentimental. This could so easily have tripped into a stereotypical portrayal of degenerate hillbillies and gratuitous poverty porn, but instead each character is shown as doing what they have to do in order to live under extremely harsh conditions. Some manage to rise above their circumstance and some succumb to them. Drugs are in abundance, both as a means of making money and for everyday use and this is presented as a fact of life. The harsh things are snugged up right against the gentle in this tale. The landscape and the color palette shows just how bleak and difficult life is, and it also shows the undeniable haunting beauty of the scarcity of the mountains.
This is a thriller in the best sense of the word. The object is to find out what has happened to Ree’s father, and the viewer is taken along for the ride right up to the inevitable conclusion. What makes this rise above the run of the mill thrillers is that the devil is in the details all the way. The dialogue is sparse, the characters kept true and given context and depth even though they are not explained to death. In amidst of all the violence and danger we are also shown how Ree’s little brother and sister run and play and seem genuinely happy to be together, with no sense that they are deprived of anything essential. There are visually lyrical moments that underscore the characters themselves without intruding on the story, sometimes in black and white and sometimes in a muted colour scheme that adds to the overall impression created in the narrative. It is gripping and harrowing and reminiscent of true Southern Gothic tales underscored with a sense of almost documentary quality frankness, which makes it well worth watching.