Review in a Hurry: A classical crime drama set in a world of thugs and drugs—but in the backwoods of the Ozarks, rather than the inner city—Winter's Bone is boosted by a stellar cast of characters who engender both scares and occasional sympathy.
The Bigger Picture: Every year, there is at least one token awards contender that astonishes L.A.-based Academy members by reminding them that country folk and cold weather still exist. Last year it was Frozen River; this year it's Winter's Bone. Which is not to diminish either movie in terms of quality, but rather, to imagine that people who live in the environments depicted may not find these kinds of tales especially unique. That they are actually shown in feature films even once, in place of the easier-to-lens urban environments of California or Canada, is, however, the main reason the rest of us notice.
Jennifer Lawrence, who earned her blue-collar stripes on The Bill Engvall Show, stars as Ree, a teenage girl in charge of a household that includes an emotionally broken mom and two preteen siblings. Dad's absent, which is more of a problem than usual since he's due to stand trial for meth-dealing, and has disappeared after putting up the family house and land as bail.
So, in spite of many warnings to the contrary, Ree goes in search of her father. If she doesn't find him, she'll lose everything, but if she gets too close to uncovering what he was involved with, there's a decent chance she'll lose her life, as the locals are no more forgiving than the harsh winter weather. Even family members, like her high-strung uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), are as much a potential threat as an asset.
Though the story occasionally threatens to veer into country-fried caricature, this isn't some Hollywood production where a bunch of handsome actors don fake bad teeth and generic accents—the supporting cast, especially Hawkes and the fearsome Dale Dickey, look and sound authentically terrifying, in a very human, unpredictable way. Only Lawrence could easily pass for movie-star beautiful, but she de-glams well.
The movie's climax does a particularly impressive job of balancing emotional tragedy, comic absurdity and some realistic frights. Director Debra Granik, who previously gave us Vera Farmiga's breakthrough in Down to the Bone, is to be commended…and watched.
The 180—A Second Opinion: Though it's generally a convincing portrait, the movie does at times revel in what feel like cheap shots: Those wacky Southerners allow kids to carry rifles at school! And they skin and eat squirrels! Good thing they can pick a mean banjo!