Movie Maniac

Actress Lawrence's performance shines in 'hillbilly noir'

“Winter’s Bone” received much buzz after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the dramatic grand jury prize and Waldo Salt outstanding screenwriting award.

The film has played at several other notable festivals since then, and began a limited theatrical run in larger markets in early June. It opens today in Wichita.

The film deserves its accolades. It’s a gritty, dark, arresting drama that we experience rather than watch. It’s so naturalistic in its portrayal of downtrodden Ozark mountain life, it feels like a documentary.

The tale is full of danger, emotion, conviction and ultimately promise, but we bear its grimness thanks to a searing, revelatory performance from its young lead, Jennifer Lawrence (who warrants Oscar attention). She makes us want to stand right beside her every harsh, unsure step of the way and wish we could protect her.

Lewis plays 17-year-old Ree, who is taking on far more than her years have equipped her for. She cares for her younger sister and brother and mentally unstable mother, while running the small family home nestled deep in the Ozark mountains.

Money is scarce, food is even scarcer, and her drug dealer father, Jessup, has been missing for weeks.

The local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) comes by to tell Ree that Jessup has put up the family farm as collateral for his most recent jail bond, and his court date is rapidly approaching. If he doesn’t show, they lose the home, so Ree must find Jessup.

No easy feat. Cooking and dealing meth is the underbelly of this mountain culture (in another era, it was moonshine), and Ree must tread into a very territorial and secretive society.

She starts her search by visiting her uncle, the intimidating Teardrop (a ruthless John Hawkes). He warns her that poking around will — not could — get her hurt.

Ree proceeds anyway. But she finds it’s all more dangerous and tight-lipped than she thought. Why is no one forthcoming? Is her father dead? And if so, how can she prove it to the court so she can save her home?

The story is finely layered, drawing us deeper into this foreign mountain life (the taut script is by director Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel). When we think we’re at the point of no return, it gets even more despairing.

“Winter’s Bone” has been labeled “hillbilly noir,” and for good reason. It perhaps recalls the tense tone of the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.”

Eventually, there are surprising heroes — and horrors. A wrenching scene with Ree is heartbreaking, but it’s a testament to her strength. Her commitment to her family — her willingness to go to such unspeakable lengths to fulfill a duty she didn’t ask for — is profoundly moving.

Make no mistake, this is powerful, dark stuff. But it also somehow manages to be hopeful. That’s the film’s — and mostly Lawrence’s — greatest triumph.