Winter’s Bone: Debra Granik’s Sundance Fest Top Winner, Introducing Jennifer Lawrence

Six years ago at Sundance Film Fest Debra Granik debuted “Down to the Bone,” a downbeat, persuasively directed piece featuring a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga playing a working-class woman ravaged by her private addictions. The performance catapulted the career of Farmiga, and it marked Granik as a bright talent to watch.

Now Granik’s second feature, “Winter’s Bone,” extends and deepens the considerable promise of that film. Likewise, it features an absolutely stunning performance by a young actress who is something to see. Jennifer Lawrence has an open face, darting eyes and an inquisitive, tactile physical expression that gives considerable weight to the emotional complications of her character’s plight.

Granik and the writer Anne Rosellini have adapted the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell.  A hillbilly noir, set in the Ozarks, in rural Missouri, the film is suffused with genre elements colored by ethnographic details about the local culture that governs the daily lives and specific characteristics of the local inhabitants.

Granik and her cinemtographer Michael McDonough, shooting with the digital RED camera, establish the physical environment of rippled landscapes, harsh terrain and unforgiving forrests.  In the daily movements and actions, Granik sharply illustrates the social significance of music, folklore and the very distinctive vocal patterns and dialect.  But there’s also a deep suggestion of menace and uncertainty, brought about by the constant threat of violence and the pervasive use of guns and drugs.

The story, both involving and rich in nuance and texture, details the extraordinary measures undertaken by 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) to uncover the fate of her missing father. The larger social and cultural framework provides a lot of small, compensatory qualities that cohere and built into a sustained whole.

From the opening moments, jagged, elliptical shots that underline the family’s desperate situation, Granik beautifully lays out the dramatic particulars. Ree’s thrown into a near impossible situation. Her mother’s an emotional cripple, somnolent and wiped out by drugs who’s ostensibly uncommunicative with the outside world. Money is tight, if not wholly nonexistent and the family requires the generosity of their neighbors for basic needs and goods.

Granik cannily withholds certain details, a way that draws the viewer in slowly, delicately. Ree’s of high school age, but she’s never seen in class. She watches over some ROTC at the local school drilling, but otherwise her primary focus is attending to the emotional and personal needs of her younger brother () and sister ().

Their severely reduced circumstances reach desperate straits after the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) turns up at their house and notifies Ree her father is due for a court date on an outstanding drug violation. The larger complication is that he used the family’s dilapidated property to secure his bond. If he fails to turn up in court, the family is facing a bond forfeiture and the loss of their home.

Ree, stubborn, steely, exceptionally determined, embarks on a quest to turn up her father and compel him to show up for his court date. The economically battered region is held aloft by the underground drug black market, having evolved from moonshine to marijuana to “crank,” that is “cooking,” or manufacturing crystal methadone.

Ree’s father, named Jessup, is a notorious figure, local outlaw and poet revered for his unusual dexterity and skill at “cooking.” The Dolly family is connected, seemingly, by blood or business arrangements to the extended network of families that make up the deeply insular community. “I’m a Dolly, bread and buttered,” Ree says.

Ree’s odyssey becomes a dramatically revealing means to uncover the family and social history. In traversing the backwoods, Ree warily connects with family and known associates of her father that reveals the frayed family dynamics and local conflict, especially that involving Teardrop (John Hawkes), her uncle. His violent reaction to her mission immediately conjures up the visceral levels of hate and distrust surrounding her father.

It has been a couple of weeks since she’s seen her father. She’s brave, even reckless, in trying to uncover the truth. Her care for the welfare of her younger brother and sister provides the valuable emotional and narrative credibility. Ree sees the military as an escape, but she wants some assurances for the rest of her family (she sternly rebukes the neighbor who offers to raise her younger brother and sister).

Her tenacity in the necessity for her quest never lessens her resolve to uncover the whereabouts of her father. Whether unwittingly or not, she is cast into the murky world of her father’s livelihood, a process that naturally puts her in conflict with the powerful local crime figures who’d obviously prefer their work remain undisturbed.

“Winter’s Bone” is a mystery tale in which the slow accumulation of clues and forensic details propel the story dramatically. Granik breaks up the dominant narrative with small asides, like a tense standoff involving Teardrop and the sheriff, or more quietly, a beautiful moment where Ree visits the home of some distant celebration, where a family birthday celebration is marked by a deliciously evocative bluegrass music session.  Granik also gets at the habits and local culture, the tendency toward self-reliance. In another sharp sequence, Ree tutors her brother and sister in the proper way of handling a rifle in staking out their prey.

Granik’s work satisfies the demands of the genre, but she counters and defies expectations. The movie is dominated by Lawrence, who appears in virtually every scene. It is a big part, but Lawrence is never showy or mannered. Her movements are quiet, alternately soft and hard. She holds the screen, and helps the various parts coalesce through the force and power of her eerie concentration.

Hawkes is also mesmerizing. He’s wiry and lean, his craggy, pockmarked face is incredible suggestive and evocative. His showdown with the local kingmaker to intercede in his niece’s life is an absolutely brilliant piece of sharp, undemonstrative acting.

Every single performance in “Winter’s Bone” feels absolutely right and note perfect.  There’s a terrific scene between Ree and an army recruiter that is absolutely sensational, typical of Granik’s feel for character and subtlety of expression.  Like Jennifer Lawrence, it’s a knockout.

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin