It will be a crime if Jennifer Lawrence isn't on every best-actress list at the end of this year for her performance in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone.
Only a teen, Lawrence gives a thoughtful, gritty and nuanced performance as the central character in this chilly, gripping film, a girl named Ree Dolly who's future seems, at best, limited. Ree plans to join the military once she's old enough, in the hopes that it will take her away from the hard-scrabble life of rural Missouri that she's experienced so far. But her escape hatch suddenly shrinks when she is forced into the position of having to rescue her family from homelessness.
Ree is the oldest of three children in a backwoods family that's barely scraping by. Their mother is apparently brain-damaged or similarly incapacitated -- and their father is nowhere to be found.
Which is the problem. Arrested on a charge of cooking meth, Dad's been released on bond -- and he's put up the family house and minimal acreage as collateral. When he doesn't show up in court, the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) comes around to tell Ree that she's got a week to find her father -- or forfeit the house.
So Ree begins searching the area for her father, accosting his brother (a scary John Hawkes) and his other acquaintances, most of whom are distant relations. Eventually, she is forced to carefully and respectfully work her way into the meth underground, hoping her plight will have an impact, even on the drug-ridden meth addicts and dealers she encounters.
Her quest puts Ree at odds with herself: On the one hand, she wants to protect her father from the forces of both law enforcement and from the various bad guys who also are after him (for allegedly squealing on his old partners). On the other hand, she's got to find him, which means picking her way through a landscape of enemies to glean information without giving much away.
Granik's script (cowritten with Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's novel) is spare and lean, not afraid to deal with the gritty reality of Ree's life. Yet her poverty -- the fact that she and her siblings barely have enough to eat, that all they have is the roof over their head -- is the hard fact of her life and not the point of the film.
Granik's film does something few Hollywood films attempt: to tell a truthful story about a family living below the poverty line that isn't about poverty itself. Instead, it's about the hardscrabble nerve it takes to confront each day and make the most of it. These characters cope with what life throws at them; this isn't a story about finding miraculous solutions or a secret exit into another life.
Lawrence, as Ree, has a toughness that is unspoken, and which sometimes gets her in trouble. She's not afraid to stand up for herself even when the odds are against her because she knows no one else will. There isn't an ounce of self-pity in this character, only a determination that seems unquenchable, even as she meets one frustration after another.
The terrific actor John Hawkes absolutely shines as Ree's rough, even vicious uncle, Teardrop, her father's brother but not his brother's keeper. Reluctantly, then with regret and remorse, he joins her quest; Hawkes captures the destructive fire that is ignited by his addiction to smoking meth -- but also the control that allows him to focus on this goal, against his better judgment.
Winter's Bone is like a bullet to the heart -- it will knock you flat with its clear-eyed tale of a girl forced to be an adult. Hooray for Debra Granik and this gripping, wrenching tale.