Despair and misery hang over every frame of "Winter's Bone," like the dried, twisted branches of the trees hovering o'er the Ozarks, where this unflinching drama is set. It's perhaps the most frightening locale in recent cinematic memory. With all the overgrown foliage, yard junk and plucked banjos present from the first shot, you spend the next 100 minutes waiting for other shoe to drop, in the form of a pig-squealing scene.
Whether that arrives is for adventurous audiences to discover, and Debra Granik's film is certainly riveting, yet also depressing.
Sure to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, 19-year-old unknown Jennifer Lawrence (TV's "The Bill Engvall Show") owns the screen as dirt-poor Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl going on 37, and not by her choice. She's raising her two younger siblings, because Mom is virtually catatonic and Dad is nowhere to be found.
That's too bad, because the kids depend on his meth-making operation to fund what little comforts they have. Really, they have nothing but each other, with Ree being the glue that holds them together, skipping school to do so.
One morning, Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt, "The Road") interrupts her wood-splitting duties to inform her that if her father doesn't show up for his court date, they'll lose their house (if one could call it that). Without a home, Ree won't be able to provide for her sibs, so she sets out to find him " on foot, because they don't own a vehicle.
What follows is a sort of backwoods fairy tale / cornpone detective story as Ree searches for him in two-bit shacks and hovels populated by dangerous characters, many of whom are relatives. The only person able to offer true help is her coked-up uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes, TV's "Eastbound & Down"), and he may be the most unhinged of all.
Not everyone is as well-drawn as Ree, and Granik ("Down to the Bone"), who also co-wrote the screenplay, doesn't go out of her way to make it clear who's who. Ultimately, that doesn't matter; it's Ree's story to the core. Save for one hokey, Percocet-fueled dream sequence, it's one grounded in realism. Granik doesn't direct so much as let things be; one wonders how many members of the cast aren't even actors.
I feel the same way about the film as I did about last year's "Crazy Heart": It's a good " but not great " movie with a fantastic lead performance. And Lawrence's seemingly effortless work is the real reason to see "Winter's Bone." She's so believable, one never catches her emoting; she simply inhabits her character, and the transformation is remarkable. You're witnessing the arrival of a star ... and thanking the stars her Ree is not you. "Rod Lott