*Winter's Bone (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
In the opening moments of the mesmerizing, Sundance award-winning Winter's Bone, director Debra Granik drops us cold into a different world. A plaintive folk song plays over late-fall images of the Missouri Ozarks: ancient trees strung with clothesline; ramshackle homes surrounded by what resembles a perpetual yard sale. Most films waste little time introducing critical characters, and that's true here as well. But in Winter's Bone, it's the place that lives and breathes.
What's just as remarkable is that the story's human protagonist proves equally compelling. In this adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's book, we meet Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen living with too much responsibility for her age. Her meth-cooking father Jessup has been arrested; her mother is incapacitated by mental illness; and she now cares for her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and sister (Ashlee Thompson). All she has is their Ozarks home — so when Ree learns that her father has used the property for bail bond collateral before disappearing, she has only days to find him before the family becomes homeless.
As Ree begins her quest to track down Jessup, it becomes clear the family tree isn't giving up its secrets. Ree's uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) is only the first to warn her to MYOB. Lawrence's marvelously simmering performance captures a young woman who has replaced any ounce of self-pity with an overriding determination to do what has to be done.
That's because her world — captured in slate-grey tones by cinematographer Michael McDonough — is as hard as the title sounds. Granik reveals that hardness through the worn, drawn faces of her supporting characters, including Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) and cinder-eyed Merab (Dale Dickey). But she also finds the small details that tell much. When Ree walks through the halls of the school that she's too busy to attend, she doesn't look wistfully into academic classrooms; instead, it's a "life skills" class preparing teens to care for babies. And when Granik and screenwriting partner Anne Rosellini spike the laconic dialogue with a crisp one-liner, they never sacrifice authenticity to be gratuitously clever.
Yet as brilliantly atmospheric as Winter's Bone is, it would be criminal to understate how effectively it works as a rural film-noir thriller. With Ree functioning as the detective who just doesn't know when to butt out of dangerous people's business, the film unspools with tension and urgency. You won't find many scenes this year that crackle with as much danger as a rural traffic stop in which Teardrop essentially dares the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) into a showdown.
So much about Winter's Bone pops with intensity that it's then a bit startling to have the film ultimately hone in on simple family bonds. Those bonds force Ree's hand in the first place, and they're what she appeals to when stonewalled. The events of Winter's Bone are driven by a violation of the place's implicit promises of loyalty, and by Ree's fierce dedication to those promises. Granik's impressive achievement is making viewers feel as immersed in and connected to this world as those who may never leave it.