A stiff, frightening chill blows through Winter's Bone in an early scene.
Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly is desperately trying to hold her household together. Mama is sick and incapacitated, Daddy is on the lam and the metaphorical wolves are circling. A not-so-kindly neighbor drops off some freshly killed venison for the penniless family. Ree looks at her two young siblings. "How about some deer stew?" she asks. "Both of you need to get over here and watch how I make it."
Ree's problem in this film is simple: She needs to locate her father and bring him to his court date or the family will lose its home. But so nasty and brutish is this world that a teenage girl, acutely aware of her own mortality, feels it necessary to pass on survival skills to young children as soon as possible.
Rustic Americana is a staple of American indies, most often in a drearily realistic vein, but also as comedy (Napoleon Dynamite) and camp (Black Snake Moan). Debra Granik's already hugely acclaimed film falls in the earnest category, but it is indeed a cut apart from, say, Frozen River, Wendy and Lucy, Bubble or That Evening Sun—worthy films all.
Part of the difference is that Granik and her designers are just better at placing us in the hopeless world of rural poverty. The movie was shot in Missouri, but the blasted landscape of clear-cut mountainsides, rotted-out mobile homes and rusting vehicles can be spotted in North Carolina, too. The available jobs in this remote America run from guarding prisoners to serving in the military to cooking crystal meth. In a sense, the people we see in Winter's Bone have also become something like Native Americans: The deer occupies a totemic status—deer images occupy space on bumper stickers and baseball caps, mounted buck heads adorn even the crummiest of abodes and children wear camo to school. For much of the film, Ree herself wears a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Eastern whitetail that provides so much sustenance to humans.
But while the mise en scène is convincing, the film also has ties to less high-minded fare—there are moments in Winter's Bone (that title isn't only a metaphor, either) that recall outré classics as Evil Dead 2, Fargo and any movie in which someone gets locked in a barn with a family of mean rednecks.
The cast, too, is stocked not with amateurs or with famous names straining for seriousness but with a crack assemblage of television character actors. Ree's meth-head uncle is played by a sinewy John Hawkes, who's done fine work in Deadwood and Eastbound & Down; Garret Dillahunt, so brilliantly chameleon-like that he was cast in two different meaty roles in consecutive seasons of Deadwood, finds the right mix of sternness and ineptitude as the local sheriff; Dale Dickey, best known for the redneck sitcom My Name is Earl, has the hard-bitten features of a country survivor, and she somehow pulls off a role that involves wielding a chainsaw and wearing a silly hat. As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence is excellent: She's a pretty young starlet, but she has street cred as a Kentucky native and underplays her scenes with her more experienced co-stars while carrying the film as a young woman who draws courage from her fears.
With the notable exception of a scene with a family of traditional musicians, there are few prettifying touches in Winter's Bone. It's a mean old world, but it's also a movie: The Grand Guignol flourishes help make the film as memorable as Sling Blade, even as its pictorial details are as authentic as the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans.