Debra Granik's bleak little film is as tough, unflinching and fascinating as the characters who eke out a life amid its cold, gray hills. Set in the hardscrabble Ozarks, a world of rusted-out cars, wandering dogs, laundry flapping on clotheslines, rotting buildings, burned-out meth labs and ingrained codes of silence, Winter's Bone - based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell - carries a tangible sense of fear and hopelessness. It's a brutal portrait of the face of modern poverty.
But the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, also indelibly illustrates how ingenuity, courage and duty can combat adversity, at least for awhile. These are the qualities 17-year-old Ree (the terrific Jennifer Lawrence) possesses in abundance. She's doing the jobs of both parents, taking care of her little brother and sister, making sure they do their homework, teaching them survival skills such as how to shoot and skin squirrels. Dinner's got to come from somewhere, after all.
Ree's mother is physically present but emotionally vacant, silent. Her dad Jessop, who ``cooks crank,'' as Ree says matter of factly, has vanished. (The affects of methamphetamine on the community is so savage in Winter's Bone the drug practically functions as a character.) Jessop's absence is a problem for a pressing reason: He's put the house and land up as bail, and his court date is looming. If he doesn't show up, the family loses everything. So Ree sets out to track him down, only to discover that just because a person is kin doesn't mean he necessarily feels much loyalty to you.
Lawrence gives a breakout performance. Her Ree faces down monsters with the stoicism of a Marine (she dreams of joining the military, mostly for the money, but can't abandon her siblings). ``Never ask for what ought to be offered,'' she tells her brother when he's gazing longingly at the carcass of a deer the neighbors are dressing. But Ree finds that she has to do some asking, too. And a lot worse.
The film's other standout performance comes from John Hawkes as Ree's dangerously unpredictable, drug-addled uncle, who does and doesn't want to know what exactly happened to his brother. Hawkes portrays a man doomed, if not by the need for revenge that will surely result in his death, then by the white powder he can't resist. Choices are hard in Winter's Bone. It's not always an easy movie to watch, but its characters are unforgettable.