“Winter’s Bone” is a film without one false moment.
No movie is perfect, but this Sundance winner, adapted from the excellent novel by Daniel Woodrell, comes close.
It’s three movies, really, each fitting snugly into the next like a perfectly constructed set of Chinese boxes.
First it’s a mystery set in the insular and dangerous world of the Ozarks drug culture.
Then it’s a brilliantly acted character study of a 17-year-old girl who has assumed responsibilities way beyond her years.
And it’s a near-documentary examination of a familiar yet alien place marked by an extraordinary attention to detail.
Filmed in the Missouri Ozarks, this feature explores the world of young Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), whose daddy is a never-seen meth cooker and whose mother is a catatonic basket case.
Ree is only a teenager, but in her father’s absence she’s already the family’s main provider (they eat lots of deer and squirrel) and role model to her much younger brother and sister.
The Dollys live in a cabin in a holler. It’s not much, and they may not have it much longer; the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up to announce that Ree’s daddy put up the home as bail collateral after his last drug bust.
Now he’s vanished, and if he doesn’t show up for next week’s court date, the Dollys will spend the rest of the winter in the woods.
“I’ll find him,” Ree says, and there’s something in her defiant tone that says she will. That or die trying.
The film follows her dividing her time between essential chores and pounding on the doors of distant and dangerous kin, all of them hip-deep in the drug trade.
Nobody will talk about what’s happened to her daddy. That includes his brother, the leather-lean and meth-mean Teardrop (John Hawkes), a terrifying figure who grudgingly becomes Ree’s protector.
Still, she won’t give up. Beneath that baby face there’s a will of steel and an anger that sometimes moves her to say things she shouldn’t to people who can do her great harm.
Ree is magnificently played by Lawrence, a TV sitcom veteran (“The Bill Engvall Show”) who is carving a career in serious movies. What she does here should win her an Oscar nomination – especially since it doesn’t look at all like acting.
But then careful understatement is the hallmark of “Winter’s Bone,” from its depiction of Ozark life (the material is ripe for hillbilly cliches, but director Debra Granik gives the country poor their due) to the slowly growing tension to the little non-plot moments that expand Ree’s world and give it life.
Hers is a world pregnant with violent possibilities, yet steeped in lyricism. The spoken language, much of it taken straight from the novel, is simultaneously realistic and poetic.
And even amid the brutality there are moments of astonishing beauty and grace: Musicians enliven a cold night with banjos and guitars, a neighbor takes in Ree’s starving horse, her young siblings delight in showing off their spelling skills.
Ree Dolly is such a compelling survivor that you hate for “Winter’s Bone” to end.
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