“Winter’s Bone” has one of those killer screen moments where the audience suddenly, unquestionably knows it’s hooked. It’s about 15 minutes in, when steely-eyed 17-year-old Ree Dolly, trying to track down her runaway meth-cooking father, comes knocking at the door of her uncle, Teardrop. No one up until this point has been able or willing to give Ree any help, but Teardrop (John Hawkes, TV’s “Deadwood”) knows something. Rather than tell her, he harshly throttles her and warns her to stay away.
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This is the world painted so vividly in “Winter’s Bone”: a landscape where every dilapidated house and untamed forest hides terrible secrets and unfathomable dangers. But Ree has to plunge herself deeper and deeper into this blood-linked crime underworld if she wants to save her family from the hopeless existence that her father has damned them all to. And from the moment she looks defiantly in the face of the man who threatens not to go any further, we’re right there along with her.
As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence (“The Burning Plain”) projects an unreal intensity. She may deliver the performance of the year: rich with a sense of maternal protection, yet tough and hardened enough to stare all of her oppressors (and there are a lot) in the face without backing down. Ree has been charged with taking care of her two younger siblings and mute, mentally repressed mother by herself in the harsh landscape of rural Missouri. Her absentee father put their house up for bail bond, and the family will lose it unless Ree can track him down. Lawrence makes us feel the weight of the world on her shoulders every step of the way.
While Lawrence rightfully occupies a large portion of this movie’s spotlight, director Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) infuses “Winter’s Bone” with the atmosphere and tone that make it so hard to tear away from. It eschews any frivolity you might expect from a mystery starring a teenage girl: The life-and-death stakes here are not only real, but palpable. We fear for Ree, because every new character she encounters is more likely to harm her than the last. And the rugged chill of the Ozarks is expertly presented, as well, from the constant need to chop wood to the bluegrass band at a birthday party.
The script, which Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini based off of the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a wonder. It’s full of completely natural yet whip-smart lines that firmly place “Winter’s Bone” in the same school of minimalist neo-noir occupied by early-period Coen brothers. An adversary won’t let Ree speak to a crucial figure because “talkin’ just causes witnesses.” And when Ree’s teaching her younger brother to shoot a gun (a scene that works as a brilliant distillation of the story’s building fear and tension), she commands him to “kneel down like you’re prayin’.”
If the movie drags a bit in the second half, it’s only because it had been strung so abnormally tight in the first. But rest assured that “Winter’s Bone” is a wholly worthwhile suspense picture, and the way it builds purely from mood and dialogue is unprecedented in mainstream Hollywood today. In its tale of a girl’s selfless attempts to shield her family from the sins of her father, the film weaves a fantastic tale from the ice-cold underbelly of this forgotten American wilderness.