"Don't ask for nothing that ought to be offered," says the plucky young cuss at the center of Debra Granik's superb backwoods mystery, Winter's Bone. Her name is Ree Dolly, 17 but already feeling years older.
Nobody is offering what Ree needs: information about the whereabouts of her father, Jessup, a meth cooker who jumped bail with the family homestead on the line. Ree asks anyway, of relatives and accomplices who would sooner kill than break an Ozarks code of silence hiding secrets.
Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has nothing to lose except the roof over the heads of her clinically depressed mother and younger siblings. Money ran out before the food supplies and firewood. "Ain't you got no man to do this?" someone asks Ree, because that's what women need in these parts. "No, ma'am," she replies without hesitation or fear. Ree wants answers, not pity, as she chases a ghost that used to be her daddy.
Any discussion of the merits of Winter's Bone begins with Lawrence, a relative newcomer whose rough-hewn portrayal is the stuff of instant stardom. There's nothing showy or unsure about her. We learn much about the girl through the way Lawrence observes what Ree doesn't have, in a life hamstrung by poverty and pure meanness. Lawrence is in every scene of Winter's Bone, leaving her plenty of opportunity to make false moves. I dare you to find one, in a performance that will be remembered this awards season.
Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, adapting Daniel Woodrell's book, create a uniquely gripping twist on the film noir concept of a hero in over his or her head. "Hick noir" is a better label, as Ree trudges headlong through a rural underworld of ramshackle homes and even shakier lives and loyalties. Even Ree's kin can't be trusted, and nearly everyone is related. Winter's Bone perfectly captures a hardscrabble setting some of us drive past on two-lane roads, wondering how people live that way.
The milieu inspires some of the year's most vivid performances, especially John Hawkes as Ree's frightening Uncle Teardrop, and Dale Dickey — the sleazy hooker in both Breaking Bad and My Name Is Earl — as a woman who might have been like Ree 40 years before, until the gumption was beaten out of her.
Yet even in its grimmest moments, Winter's Bone isn't a downer; rather, it's a gritty survival story with a faintly feminist slant. Granik pulled off a similarly tricky feat with her feature film debut, Down to the Bone, featuring Vera Farmiga as a cocaine addict considering adultery. Granik's women have one thing in common besides tall odds against them: their determination to beat those odds.