Seventeen year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is the only thing holding her family together. Her father, Jessup, out on bail for cooking methamphetamine, has disappeared. Her mother is catatonic (whether from past or present drug abuse, we never learn), unable to take care of her two younger children. That task falls to Ree. While other young women her age spend their time studying for the SATs, shopping for a prom dress, and texting friends, Ree’s days look more like something out of the Wild West. Meeting basic daily needs requires physical labor—chopping wood, shooting and skinning squirrels, handwashing laundry and hanging it on a clothesline, and walking the children long distances to school. Ree endures the routine with stoic efficiency, her affection for her younger siblings, and even for her helpless mother, displayed through small gestures and watchfulness. She drills her younger sister on math and spelling on the way to school. And she imparts her values when she restrains her younger brother from asking a neighbor for food. “Never ask for something that should be given,” she tells him.
The Dolly wooden cabin, located in the hard scrabble Missouri Ozarks, is the family’s only ballast. Jessup, however, signed over the home to secure his release. If he fails to show up for his court hearing, the home will be seized. Ree sets out to find her father and, in so doing, upsets the code of silence that governs the local drug culture, something her father also failed to understand.
Based on the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone had already racked up an impressive list of awards before nabbing Oscar nominations for best film, best adapted screenplay, best actress for Jennifer Lawrence, and best supporting actor for John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. The supporting cast members, including many locals enlisted as extras, seem beaten down, but not yet defeated, by their day-to-day existence. While farming and raising cattle occupy some, the main industry is producing meth, with all the dangers involved. Teardrop, trying to convince Ree that her father is dead, takes her to a burned out cabin, the aftermath of a meth explosion. Ree, seeing weeds growing among the ashes, realizes the time frame is wrong and vows to continue her search, with violent consequences.
Director Debra Granik, who also wrote the screenplay, has ventured into drug abuse territory before with 2004’s Down to the Bone, starring Vera Farmiga, as a woman trying to manage her secret addiction. Coincidentally, each film contains the word “bone” in the title, underscoring Granik’s talent to strip things down to the basics. In Winter’s Bone, rather than gruesome scenes of meth’s side effects, with a deft hand she displays how the drug culture permeates the lives of everyone, eroding even family bonds.
Ree is the center of her small family, and Lawrence’s performance is the centerpiece of the film. She imbues the character with an underlying strength that refuses to flag even when threatened with bodily harm. When she shows up at the local recruitment office, she hopes to secure the signing bonus for her family, not to fulfill her own goal of joining the army. Unlike the other adults in her life, the recruitment officer is sympathetic to her plight and encourages her to focus on home.
Ree finally learns her father’s fate and things seem less dire at the end of the film. One hopes that somehow Ree, and the many other Rees out there, trapped in a lawless world that forces children to grow up too fast, will someday find the support they need to finally break free of a destructive family cycle.