Every year, an independent film will shine as the best of the Sundance Film Festival, the premiere event for small, non-mainstream movies. Winter's Bone is currently the one shining, and like last year's Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire and The Messenger, this movie is getting recognized more for its acting performances than anything else. Winter's Bone boasts the brilliant and natural talents of new actress Jennifer Lawrence who is certainly deserving of an Academy Award nomination.
Jennifer Lawrence's character Ree Dolly is very strong. Despite being a teenager, she's the head of her household, a very poor household that struggles to stay afloat. Ree has to raise her two siblings, her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister, while also having to care for her sick and mentally-ill mother.
Ree lives in a desperate, rural area, which is starkly captured by director Debra Granik. It's a darker version of David Gordon Greene's earlier work. Greene focused his lens on desperate, rural areas like the one where he grew up in North Carolina whereas Granik focuses this film on the areas in southern Missouri, commonly referred to as the Ozarks, but the destitute parts that one normally doesn't see.
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the principal plot begins with Ree's father, Jessup, using their house as collateral to get out of prison and then disappearing. Garret Dillahunt (Last House on the Left and No Country for Old Men) plays Sheriff Baskin, the man sent to find Jessup. Baskin warns Ree that if he can't find Jessup than the state will take their house and kick Ree, her mom and siblings out. Ree takes it upon herself to find him, even though her uncle Teardrop, played by John Hawkes (Deadwood and Me And You And Everyone We Know), strongly advises her not to do so.
In fact, all of her relatives advise Ree not to look for her father. None, however, is scarier than Merab, played by Dale Dickey. Jessup tries to throw Ree off the tracks and occasionally yells, but he doesn't go as far as Merab. She is as cold as the winter's air and her gaze into you can send chills up your spine. It gets to the point where she has to leave a mark and maybe a few bruises.
Nevertheless, Ree will lose the house if she doesn't find her father, so she soldiers on. In the meantime, she has to prepare her siblings for the worst. She therefore gives them survival training. She teaches them how to shoot a rifle and to cook a squirrel.
Wherever her father went, it looks as though he was involved with drugs, along with almost half the family. Ree starts to worry and Lawrence portrays that but also does an amazing job of holding it together. Lawrence has an amazing face that just exudes strength, but there are moments when she becomes vulnerable and Lawrence handles those times so superbly.
At one point, one character says to her, "I don't know how you did that," meaning how she managed to stay strong through all of this and it is a wonder. Unlike Gabby Sidibe's character in Precious, you don't spend the majority of the film feeling sorry or pity for Ree. You see that despite being dirt poor and having to scrap for everything, Ree is a powerful girl, not just tough but powerful and there's a difference.
Ree does have a lot of responsibilities for someone so young. She's not that much older than 18 yet she's got the duties of someone twice her age, and those duties feel like the size of the world. Granik also incorporates some cool bluegrass music into this film that flows so nicely and adds an emotional warmth to all the chills on screen.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.