by Richard von Busack
THE MELODRAMA-FREE indie movie Winter’s Bone is like a Little Red Riding Hood story in which there’s nothing but wolves. The film is about how the outlaw culture in the Ozarks hasn’t changed much from the days of Jesse James 135 years ago: sprawling clans still evade the law and deal out their own kind of justice. The only difference is that the business of moonshining has evolved into speed-cooking.
Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Debra Granik’s spare, gripping film concerns 17-year-old Ree Dolly (a tough and thoroughly believable Jennifer Lawrence) and her search for a father who has vanished.
Before he skipped bail on a meth-making charge, father Jessup signed over his house and woods to the bail bondsmen. Ree had planned to join the Army and use the signing bonus to help the rest of her family—two young children and a mother incapacitated with depression. Instead, the girl has to hunt up a father who doesn’t want to be found and try to get the truth from distant relatives who know much more than they’re saying. Ree is sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by her young Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes).
Ree must beat her way through the stonewalling of her violent relations (a typical greeting: “What brings you here? Somebody died?”). Ree resolves to get to the one closest to the center of the labyrinth: a bear-size granddad, played by the nonpro actor Ronnie Hall. This ill-tempered bruiser is named Thump, without any unnecessary explanation.
Granik, who made Down to the Bone with Vera Farmiga, films in the half-frozen hills near Springfield, Mo.—a forbidding landscape of bare trees, blue wood smoke and mobile home compounds guarded by chained-up pit bulls, of truck headlights that burst in suddenly on the rural roads and of a Stygian swamp where the mystery ends.
But one doesn’t get a sense of watching a city director glomming onto the squalor. When Granik cuts to a folk jam session led by singer/folklorist Maredith Sisco, the film practically glows from the goodness of the music. At this gathering, we see a familiar face.
One of the people Ree interrogates in her journey is April (Sheryl Lee), the ex-girlfriend of a cousin. Lee will never be forgot for her performance as the sylvan Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks. How to put this? She’ll always be a beautiful woman, but she’s aged noticeably. Lee—a forest spirit seen in winter—really complements Granik’s theme of ruin in these dark woods; her presence is of those feats of iconic casting that makes you gasp a little.
The subject matter of Winter’s Bone might have come from John Sayles—the writing is sympathetic and low-key as in a Sayles picture—but Granik seems more watchful in her choice of nonpro actors than Sayles was, framing them smartly, giving them more room. And no sense—as in Sayles—of a script that has it all down in print, or of the doubly underscored emphasis on the goodness of the working-person’s heart.
Winter’s Bone stays mysterious, even as it strays close to documentary. The most talked-about scene—the skinning and cleaning of a squirrel for dinner—is one of the most immaterial. This can’t be the first squirrel the Dolly family has eaten. And the scene of Ree giving shooting lessons to her little brother just before he bags that squirrel also seems false: most kids in the deep woods shoot at an early age.
Nevertheless, the film’s fineness lies in the little details: the no-comment tour of Ree’s high school, the ROTC practicing in the gym and a solidly improvised scene of an Army recruiter lowering an applicant’s expectations. Even joining the military might not be a way out of these woods. Lawrence’s own fierceness gives this survival story the kind of immediacy that the summer’s action movies can only grope at.