Set in a poor, out-of-the-way portion of the Missouri Ozarks, Winter's Bone carefully tells the story of a 17 year old girl's attempt to find her father, Jessup. It isn't that she, Ree Dolly, has any real desire to see him. He has disappeared, running from the law after building a reputation as the area's #1 producer of illicit methamphetamines ("crank"). While on the run, he's abandoned Ree to tend to her elementary-aged brother and sister. Mom is home, but of no use; circumstances have apparently taken a severe emotional and physical toll on her. If Jessup doesn't appear at an upcoming court date, Ree and the rest of the family will lose their house and land because Jessup posted bond with the property as collateral.
We follow Ree as she searches, and along the way we're introduced to a variety of neighbors and kinfolk. Secrecy, drug use, and desperation are apparent in practically every living room and heart. Beautiful (though only occasional) mountain folk music and the hesitant compassion of Ree's uncle, Teardrop, aren't nearly enough to lift the cloud of hopelessness that surrounds and entangles every character, every subplot. The trees creak and the souls moan under the stress of the cold wind that never relents. Even the cops seem suspicious. Even friends seem to have a dark agenda. As the younger children jump haplessly on the trampoline and learn timidly how to skin a squirrel, the world around them is crumbling beneath the oppression of adult nonsense and mistakes. These people live in a bubble from which they cannot escape even if they try; when Ree meets with an army recruiter, she has her hopes of a new, better life prompty dashed. All we can do is watch, and be sad.
This film reminds us of Cold Mountain for its setting, though that story took place in the 1800s and this one presumably could have happened last week. Really, it has more in common with The Road with its heavy, unceasing themes of despair and frustration. Not that we don't recommend it. After all, it's one of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees, and it won the grand jury prize last year's Sundance film festival. And it's easy to see why. Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Ree, is remarkable for her ability to look innocent and precious even as she suffers beatings and holds the hands of dead men. And everything around her supports her tale perfectly. Old tires, scruffy beards, banjos, chained-up dogs, low grey clouds, and--most of all--a dreadful collection of destitute neighbors all helped lead us to this one thought: we hope Ree's world doesn't really exist. But, somewhere, right now, it probably does.