Southern hospitality as we know it would seem an alien concept to the impoverished, drug-ridden Ozarks community of Winter's Bone. A stark character-driven drama with film noir elements, Winter's Bone depicts a rural culture that clings so tightly to rigid protocols and unspoken laws, the interpersonal dynamics feel almost medieval. Early in the film, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tells her younger brother, "Never ask for what oughtta be offered," which conveys the local sense of honor.
Circumstance forces Ree to repeatedly asks questions that test her extended family's Mafia-style code of silence. He father Jessup, a meth-cooking convict, has gone missing and if he skips his court date, his family will forfeit the house and timberland he posted as bond. That outcome would be a disaster for Ree, who single-handedly raises two younger siblings while caring for a mute, mentally damaged mother. As Ree reluctantly probes deeper into the Ozarks underbelly, her kinfolks become increasingly uncooperative and hostile to her attempts at finding Jessup. She may be an "insider," but they treat her like a revenuer sniffing around for a moonshine still.
Based on Daniel Woodrell's novel, Winter's Bone frequently reveals women to be the community's gatekeepers. Whenever Ree approaches a house, it's a wife or mother who comes out on the front porch to demand, "State your business" or something equally welcoming. Ree herself takes this role when law enforcement officers come to call. The most implacable is Merab (Dale Dickey), the flinty wife of an enigmatic country kingpin. Merab deflects Ree's attempts to see the patriarch and, when challenged, lashes out with the fury of a lioness. Yet Winter's Bone's dreamlike, ritualistic conclusion hints that the women keep the order while men keep the secrets.
Winter's Bone never glamorizes drugs or violence, preferring to focus on the consequences of crime and poverty for Ree and young women like her. Early in the film she visits a local high school, where the only choices appear to be child-rearing classes or military drills: Having kids or enlisting in the army seem to be her only life options. Lawrence's performance makes you ache in sympathy for Ree, whom we perceive not as strong, but as a young woman struggling to find her strength in an uncaring world.
At times, director Debra Granik overplays the film's understated approach, and some of the supporting actors seem like poseurs playing white-trash dress-up. Would-be literary details like Ree's uncle named "Teardrop" can ring false, although John Hawkes' soft-spoken acting conveys a flawed, drug-abusing man's attempt to find his conscience.
Winter's Bone presents a kind of quest through the criminal underworld, like a classic hard-boiled detective story, but one grounded in a documentary-style approach to life in this corner of America. In one scene, Ree shows her siblings how to shoot and skin squirrels for supper when all else fails. In Winter's Bone, the only Southern comforts are cold ones.
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