Last year Melissa Leo gave a stunning performance in the bleakly perceptive and moving independent film “Frozen River,” which unerringly caught the atmosphere of an out-of-the-way American locale, the New York-Canada border. Now Jennifer Lawrence matches her in another dark family tale that captures an unusual neighborhood, the Arkansas Ozarks. “Winter’s Bone” is an extraordinary picture.
Just as “River” used a suspense structure to dramatize the decision of a single mother to get involved in a human-smuggling operation to save her family’s home after her husband absconds with their savings, so “Bone” is fashioned as a mystery surrounding a young woman’s effort to discover what’s happened to her father. The missing man, who was out on bail after his most recent arrest, was deeply involved in the area’s rampant drug traffic, and his disappearance might mean that he’s simply skipped trial. But it could also imply something far more sinister.
That’s a terrible problem for teenager Ree Dolly (Lawrence), who’s taking care of her younger siblings (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson). Their family’s life is hardscrabble under the best of circumstances, but her father Jessup used their land as collateral on his bond, and if he can’t be found—dead or alive—they’ll lose it. So she tries to discover what’s become of him—an attempt that brings her up against some very dangerous people, especially the head of the clan that controls the trafficking in the area and his hard-as-nails wife (Dale Dickey). But even the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is of little help—and her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), whom she approaches for help, and her brother-in-law can be pretty scary, too. She gets some support from her sister (Lauren Sweetser) and a neighbor (Shelley Waggener), but mostly she’s on her own.
Debra Granik, who directed and co-wrote “Winter’s Bone” with Anne Rosellini (the script is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell), captures the milieu of the Missouri-Arkansas borderlands with poetic precision, working with cinematographer Michael McDonough to create a brooding, impoverished atmosphere one can almost touch.
And the cast is remarkably effective. Lawrence anchors the picture with an attitude one might call spunky if that word didn’t belie the grim authenticity of the circumstances in which Ree finds herself; she’s especially affecting in her scenes with Stone and Thompson. Then there’s Hawkes, who draws so sharp a portrait of a man torn between what might be termed a criminal code and the needs of family that he barely seems to be acting at all. The supporting cast all register strongly, down to the menacing drug clan members and the ex-girlfriend of Jessup’s whose place Ree visits in the futile attempt to find her father.
“Winter’s Bone” ends with a grisly revelation that somehow encapsulates the region’s cruel reality and the strange notion of honor it embraces. To be sure, there’s a twist coda that puts a somewhat hopeful spin on the Dolly family’s future, but it’s hardly a comforting conclusion. The overriding emotional current in the picture derives from its portrayal of a desperate hand-to-mouth existence among people who are both terrifyingly real and, at times, simply terrifying.
The result is a finely tuned, deeply affecting tale of realistic people trapped not only in but by the place in which they live. It’s a chilling portrait, but one with human warmth pulsating beneath the surface.