Jennifer Lawrence, in 'Winter's Bone'

Dir. Debra Granik
(2010, R, 100 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

From the very beginning, Winter’s Bone gives us a vivid sense of place. Set in rural, backwoods Missouri, it introduces us to Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a seventeen-year-old girl raising her younger brother and sister by herself. Her father comes in and out of their lives and in and out of jail, where he is a frequent occupant for cooking crystal meth. Her mother is unable to function on her own; she’s “sick,” Ree explains, but not physically. Director Debra Granik’s camera subtly captures a landscape of dilapidation and neglect, of poverty as a matter of fact. In its unadorned naturalism it bears more than a passing resemblance to Frozen River, another drama about the desperate lives of the hand-to-mouth poor, except this film is even better.

John Hawkes, as Teardrop

Ree’s father has been arrested again and released on bail, having put up the house as collateral for his bond. If he can’t be found, her family will be homeless. That’s the conflict that drives the story, which proceeds as a richly detailed survey of life in this community. Ree is surrounded by family — blood relatives, some more distant than others — but they’re mostly strangers to her, suspicious, volatile, anxious. The region is built on crystal meth; “There’s no need to say it out loud,” says the granddaughter of local drug lord Thump when Ree tells her what her dad does for a living, “everyone’s doing it.”

The screenplay, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is terrific in the way it shapes the local vernacular into spare, sometimes poetic dialogue that approaches the level of No Country for Old Men. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” Ree tells her little brother about accepting food from the neighbors, expressing not only pride but an insecurity about preserving her family. By then she has already been confronted about sending away her brother and sister; any sign of weakness puts her one step closer to losing them.

Dale Dickey, as Merab

The performances are uniformly excellent, lived-in, establishing relationships with subtle looks and body language as much as with words. Relative unknown Jennifer Lawrence has rightly been discussed as an early contender for an Oscar nomination for her tough, resolute portrayal, but note also the equally strong work of John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop, a fearsome, taciturn man with ambivalence and a grudging affection in his eyes. Consider a remarkable scene of a police pullover where a standoff hinges on shots of Hawkes’s face in a rearview mirror. He’s a singular character actor with deep eyes and a weathered visage that conveys hard-lived experience; he has impressed me previously on the HBO series Deadwood and in the offbeat comedy Me and You and Everyone We Know, and this may be my favorite of his performances.

Dale Dickey appears in a smaller but important role as a go-between whose sympathy for Ree is undercut by a sometimes ruthless desire to keep her in line; Dickey has played similar characters before, for comedy (My Name is Earl) and for tragedy (Breaking Bad), and here demonstrates a level of nuance that makes her frightening but also compassionate in unexpected ways.

The disappearance of Ree’s father is a murky mystery, obscured by the communal silence and culpability of his friends, family, and neighbors, who may know the truth or just think they do but know better than to go around asking. There’s a sense that they want to protect Ree from the secrets as much as they want to protect the secrets from Ree. But we know they’re there, just under the surface, in the uneasy glances and curt dismissals and warnings and reprisals. That’s part of what makes the film so haunting. Sometimes there’s no need to say it out loud.