Watching this mesmerizing drama from director Debra Granik, which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, I’m reminded of “Frozen River,” another stark indie about a rural woman pushed to extremes by looming destitution.
Except in this film, the heroine is not even full-grown.
Ree Dolly is a 17-year-old wise beyond her years — a necessity when you’ve dropped out of school to raise your younger siblings because your father has run off to cook meth and your mother has absorbed so much heartbreak, there’s only a shell of a woman left.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree in a performance with weight and conviction. Despite her unlined face, she lends Ree a weary, aged soul.
Early on, there’s a scene where she wanders through her old high school, peering in on the home ec classes and ROTC drills she’s left behind. It’s a wordless, wistful look back over the shoulder for a girl who’s been robbed of decisions about her own life. There are no forks in her road ahead.
At their ramshackle home, Ree’s brother watches their neighbor butchering a deer and wonders if he should ask for some meat. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” she instructs.
Ree’s glum, dirt-poor existence is at least stable, until the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) arrives with the news that her father Jessup has jumped bail after putting the family home and plot up for collateral. If he doesn’t show up in court, they lose what little they have.
Hedged in by the cloistered countryfolk, with their secretive ways and ancient codes of honor, Ree has little choice but to go around knocking on doors asking after her dad. Many of these terse, unhelpful encounters are with fellow Dollys, and she learns that if blood is thicker than water, it doesn’t always flow as freely when it comes to familial kindness.
“Some of our blood at least is the same,” Ree says to one disobliging woman. “Ain’t that supposed to mean something?”
“Ain’t you got no man to do this?” the relation (a solid Dale Dickey) responds.
This exchange highlights a key aspect of Ree’s world: Women are automatically assumed to be subservient to men. They’re caretakers and gatekeepers to their husbands and brothers. It’s something even smart ones like Ree accept without question — it’s baked into the family bread.
At one point Ree is beaten to a pulp for her transgressions, and when her uncle, Teardrop, shows up to claim her, the only question he asks is to make certain that only women laid hands on her, not men. This, by the way, is the same uncle who choked Ree a day earlier.
The implication is that among their kind, violence against women is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s kept in the family.
Teardrop is played by John Hawkes in a layered performance of veiled menace, and something else hidden even deeper.
Despite seeming small and spindly, Teardrop’s reputation is such that lawman and drug kingpin alike take a step back when they see him coming. Teardrop is aware of their fear, cradles and nurtures it, and wields it when necessary; he accepts who he is without relishing the brutality that often travels with him. It’s an Oscar-caliber turn.
What I admired most about Granik’s approach is that she never for a moment looks down on these people. Though Ree may shoot squirrels to put meat on the table, and be ashamed of her father’s involvement in drugs, there’s a stubborn pride that runs through like a backbone.
With all the cold receptions she receives on doorstep after doorstep, the only time she becomes offended is when it’s suggested she might talk to the authorities about the family business. And when someone claims her father blew up a meth lab, Ree responds with indignation: “He’s known for knowing what he’s doing.”
“Winter’s Bone” is a film that knows what it’s doing, and does it with chilling expertise.