The Ozarks come off as another universe altogether in Winter's Bone, a momentous achievement for director Debra Granik, and a showcase for the talents of relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence and character actor John Hawkes.
Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old living in a rundown cabin in the woods. Her father has disappeared; her mother sits around all day with a vacant stare; and her younger brother and sister depend on her for food and guidance. The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up one day and informs Ree that she has a problem: Her convict dad is supposedly cooking drugs again, and he's now a fugitive. As a result, Ree and her family stand to lose their property.
So Ree sets out on a journey to find her dad, dead or alive, and that journey takes her to some pretty scary places. She starts with her Uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), a coiled rattlesnake who shows his fangs when Dee pushes too hard for answers. While the men in the surrounding territories are fearsome demons, it's the women who really put the hurt on her. When Dee pokes around a particular compound one too many times, she takes a massive beating that costs her a tooth and takes her to the brink of death.
Dee's search proves to be a good mystery, which becomes all the more frightening when secretive neighbors turn violent, and Teardrop decides he's had enough. (Nobody messes with his kin but him.) There's a showdown between Teardrop and the sheriff that will knot up more than a few stomachs, and by the time Dee takes a night trip in a rowboat, Winter's Bone becomes rather horrific.
Credit Granik for making these Ozark occupants go beyond caricatures. There's something very real about them, as opposed to, say, the monsters that occupied the backwoods in Deliverance. These are frightful, protective people who will help a neighbor one second, and throw moonshine in her face the next. One gets the sense that even though this locale is firmly situated within the United States, these people have a world and laws that are all their own. I just don't picture any of these guys filing a tax return.
Granik's film is full of grays and dull whites, living up to its title. She proves to be adept with atmospherics, employing appropriate Americana roots music, authentic accents and drawn, wearied faces. I especially liked the sequences in which Ree schools her siblings on how to shoot guns and gut squirrels. The film feels authentic.
Lawrence comes out of nowhere as an acting force to be reckoned with. She's on-screen for the entire film, and her power never wanes. This is the sort of captivating work that should garner her some major awards considerations come year's end. It would be a crime if she were ignored.
Despite an opening moment for Teardrop that will leave you thinking nothing good can come from this man, Hawkes makes him much more complex. It's a riveting performance from one of those actors who you always recognize, even though you never seem to remember their names. I'll have no problem remembering his name after this film.
Lawrence is already reaping the benefits of the film, reportedly having landed the role of Mystique in the upcoming X-Men prequel. I am curious to see what this will do for Hawkes, who was best known as one of the fishermen in The Perfect Storm and the clerk who gets set on fire in From Dusk Till Dawn.
Winter's Bone gets a hold on you and doesn't let go. Ree is one of the movie year's most memorable characters, and Lawrence is certainly one of 2010's breakout stars. This is the official start of a promising career.