In Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman named Ree living in the Ozarks. Though she is only 17, she essentially lives alone and has sole care of her two younger siblings. Her mother lives with her, but is mentally ill and apparently catatonic. Her father has been missing for weeks, after getting arrested for cooking methamphetamine, and disappearing once he posted bail. This act comes back on Ree when the bail bondsman tells her that her father put up their home as part of the collateral for his bail. If he skips his court appearance, they’ll lose the property. And so Ree has an additional responsibility to keep her family safe: find her father before his court date, or find proof of his death.
It’s a search that is naturally filled with tension. When a meth cooker has gone missing, there are three logical possibilities: either he’s hiding out with meth-dealing associates, or he has been killed in an accident they’re covering up to avoid investigation, or he has been killed by his associates. No matter what, Ree’s investigation leads her to asking questions of her more extended family that they do not wish to be asked. The closest thing she has to an ally is her uncle “Teardrop” (John Hawkes), a volatile drug user even the other cookers are wary around.
Director Debra Granik makes some very interesting choices with the film. Aside from Lawrence and Hawkes, who both do terrific jobs (and earned Oscar nominations for their roles), the cast is primarily filled with first-time actors, recruited from the local area. This gives their portrayals an air of authenticity; these aren’t pampered Hollywood folks who haven’t seen hardship in half a lifetime, they’re people who have largely lived the lives they’re portraying on film. While most of them aren’t given extensive dialogue, they are completely believable in their small roles. Dale Dickey rounds out the professional actors as the main obstacle in Ree’s search, and gives a solid performance that is a bit menacing in its own right but mostly gives the impression that she is the gatekeeper to menace.
The cinematography in the film is also quite good. This is a simple, low-budget film, and there are no “wow” shots, but it is shot in a way that helps to sell both the story and the setting. Shooting in the Ozarks no doubt helps with the authenticity again, but additionally the lighting of the film helps greatly with the mood. The film simply feels cold and slightly ominous. It adds a lot of emotional weight to something that’s a simple story on the face of it.
Winter’s Bone received a lot of talk in critical circles when it debuted, but it wasn’t very popular at the box office. It’s probably destined to always be one of the “also-rans” of Academy Award discussions. But it’s a very good little film, and it’s a shame to overlook it.