Watching Winter's Bone, I kept wondering: Is this an exploitation film? Certainly it's easy to imagine filmmakers - and audiences - condescending to this material. Filmed in Missouri, Winter's Bone is set in a milieu of devastating rural poverty, complete with destroyed families, grungy homes, ancient cars, casual mayhem and those deadly meth labs we keep hearing about. The agony is unstinting, and characters speak in Southern drawls so thick I sometimes strained to make out dialogue, and I'm a Southerner.
But Winter's Bone is a haunting, vivid film, one that lingers with me. That partly owes to cinematographer Michael McDonough, who casts this blasted landscape of ruins and trash in an unearthly light. Also appealing, for this particular story: director and co-writer Debra Granik pushes the men of this community to the margins. Except for a couple of well-meaning professionals - a bail bondsman, an army recruiter - they are a hollow-eyed lot. They don't say much and instead convey their ragged emotions in bursts of violence.
Instead it's the women who seem to prop up the community. They offer kindnesses and look after each other. Let it be said, it's women who perpetrate some of the film's most intense violence, but it's also a woman who, in one of several fascinating digressions about life in this remote place, gorgeously sings "Little Sparrow," as around her in a living room, stone-faced men play banjos and mandolins.
The woman at the center of the film is barely even a woman. She is 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), and because her mother is incapacitated and her father has disappeared, it falls to her to raise her young brother and sister. She cooks for them and quizzes them on arithmetic and spelling.
Ree's life, which already verges on chaos, is thrown into complete disarray when a police officer arrives to say that her father has put up their house for his bail, and if he misses his court date, the family will have to move. This sets in motion an economical plot: Ree tries to find her dad. It's a search that takes her into uninviting corners of this devastated place, as she has a series of increasingly tense confrontations with associates in her father's meth-cooking enterprise. Joining her is her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), whose meth-inflected paroxysms prove counterproductive.
Lawrence, best known for a stint on the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show, turns in a tough and moving performance. She is relentless and unsentimental in pursuing her father and stridently protective of her family. When a neighbor kindly offers to raise Ree's brother and sister, she fiercely refuses. She will handle this on her own.