Debra Granik both directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Winter’s Bone, an adaptation of the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Set in an exceedingly rural section of the Ozark Mountains, this is the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a seventeen year old solely responsible for her two younger siblings and her mentally absent mother. One day, she learns that her meth-dealing dad has placed their house and land up for collateral on his bond, and unless he shows up for his trial date, Ree stands to lose everything. So, it becomes this young woman’s quest to locate her dad or provide proof of his death. On her journey, she must risk her own life while crawling through the sordid underbelly of a backwoods drug subculture.
This movie could have easily been ripped from the pages of Cormac McCarthy or Tom Franklin, as it is seething with Southern hyperviolence and bare-bones minimalism, both figurative and literal. This is a forsaken land where a young woman is “bred and buttered” on a life fraught with violence and perpetuated by silence. It’s the kind of place where one feels obligated to teach children how to shoot a gun for survival, where one feeds on squirrels and handouts from generous neighbors, where “you never ask for something that ought to be offered,” and where spilled blood, especially your own, demands vengeance. It’s desolate, destitute, and despairing, yet Ree never waivers in her conviction. She desperately clings to hope that, come what may, she’ll find her father or what’s left of him.
Winter’s Bone is totally deserving of its four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Jennifer Lawrence delivers an inspired performance, one built on equal parts grit and grace. And John Hawkes is nearly as impressive as Ree’s cocaine-snorting uncle, Teardrop. In one scene, he’s frighteningly bold enough to scare off the local sheriff, yet in another, he’s sufficiently tender to give his young niece and nephew each a baby chick to raise, something in this unforgiving world to call their own. And the writing is exceptional, as it is so difficult to depict Southerners without reducing them to mere caricatures.
While the gist of this movie, a young woman searching for her father, may sound subtle, this is hardly the case. Every shady character Ree encounters could prove ultraviolent, and this really sets the viewer on edge. In a sub-society where even the women seriously hurt people who ask too many questions just so that their men don’t have to bother, Ree is never safe. Each exchange could be her last, so the fearful anticipation is nearly tangible. And there’s one scene, in particular, so bone-chilling that it will have viewers buzzing long before and after the Oscar ceremony. It will flat-out haunt you.