Winter's Bone is a film without one false moment.
No movie is perfect, but this Sundance winner comes close.
It's three movies, really, each fitting snugly into the next like a perfectly constructed set of Chinese boxes.
First it's a mystery set in the insular and dangerous world of the Ozarks drug culture.
Then it's a brilliantly acted character study of a 17-year-old girl who has assumed responsibilities way beyond her years.
And it's a near-documentary examination of a familiar yet alien place marked by an extraordinary attention to detail.
Filmed in the Missouri Ozarks, this feature explores the world of young Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), whose daddy is a never-seen meth cooker and whose mother is a catatonic basket case. Ree is only a teenager, but in her father's absence she's already the family's main provider (they eat lots of deer and squirrel) and role model to her much younger brother and sister.
The Dollys live in a cabin in a holler. It's not much, and they may not have it much longer.
The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up to announce that Ree's daddy put up the home as bail collateral after his last drug bust. Now he's vanished, and if he doesn't show up for next week's court date, the Dollys will spend the rest of the winter in the woods.
“I'll find him,” Ree says, and there's something in her defiant tone that says she will. That or die trying.
Director Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini adapted the film from the excellent novel by Daniel Woodrell.
The story follows Ree dividing her time between essential chores and pounding on the doors of distant and dangerous kin, all of them hip deep in the drug trade.
Nobody will talk about what's happened to her daddy. That includes his brother, the leather-lean and meth-mean Teardrop (John Hawkes), a terrifying figure who grudgingly becomes Ree's protector.
Still, the girl won't give up. Beneath that baby face there's a will of steel — or maybe seasoned ash — and an anger that sometimes moves her to say things she shouldn't to people who can do her great harm.
She's strong, inventive, utterly free of self-pity, and brave enough to cow even a barnful of killers. At the same time she's just a kid, innocent in unexpected ways.
Ree Dolly is unlike any teenage heroine ever seen in the movies. She's magnificently played by Lawrence, a TV sitcom veteran (The Bill Engvall Show) who is carving a career in serious movies. What she does here should win her an Oscar nomination — especially since it doesn't look at all like acting.
But then careful understatement is the hallmark of Winter's Bone, from its depiction of Ozark life (the material is ripe for hillbilly cliches but Granik gives the country poor their due) to the slowly growing tension to the little nonplot moments that expand Ree's world and give it life.
For example, there's a scene between Ree and an Army recruiter — she naively thinks that if she signs up now her enlistment bonus will beat the bail bondsman to her door — that is so real, true and heartbreaking that you'll have a hard time getting past that lump in your throat. (Kudos to Russell Schalk, a real-life Army recruiter who finds compassion beneath the military decorum.)
Ree's is a world pregnant with violent possibilities, yet steeped in lyricism. The spoken language, much of it taken straight from the novel, is simultaneously realistic and poetic. And even amidst the brutality there are moments of astonishing beauty and grace: Musicians enliven a cold night with banjos and guitars, a neighbor takes in Ree's starving horse, her young siblings delight in showing off their spelling skills.
Ree Dolly is such a compelling survivor that you hate for Winter's Bone to end. This film is so good you find yourself wondering about the next stage in her life. You find yourself wishing she were real.