The protagonist of Winter’s Bone, played with unnerving tough-girl conviction by Jennifer Lawrence, lives deep in a backwoods Missouri world of absences, threats, and expectation-freighted good deeds. Forced at 17 to care for two younger siblings and a catatonic mother, she gets by better than might be expected, chopping wood for fuel and preparing meals from canned food, passing wildlife, and the grudging charity of neighbors. But as the film opens, her days of getting by look as if they might come to an end after a policeman informs her that her drug-dealing father has disappeared after putting her family’s modest cabin up as bond. Unfamiliar with the concept of giving up, she sets out to find him.
From there, Down To The Bone director Debra Granik—working from a script she co-wrote with Anne Rossellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell—follows Lawrence into the dark heart of the meth-ravaged Ozarks, a forbidding place where open hostility is the norm and the bond of family only counts as long as it doesn’t interfere with business, and even then it don’t always count for much. A volatile, coke-addled uncle (John Hawkes) provides reluctant assistance after a time, in his own fashion, and only after shaking off his first instincts to exploit the situation to his advantage, family ties be damned.
Woodrell’s work has been described as “country noir” and Granik’s film fits the basic requirements of that label. In her search for the truth, her heroine follows a circuitous, precipitous path. But Granik has no taste for noir archness, opting for a chilly, shot-on-decaying-locations naturalism that feels as lived-in as Lawrence’s performance. When her brother, after squeamishly learning to gut a squirrel, asks if they eat the organ meat, she quips darkly, “Not yet.” While her siblings frolic with the stray dogs and newborn kittens that find their way to the cabin beneath the perpetually overcast skies of early winter, Lawrence carries herself like someone who knows the rules of the world and the cost of breaking them.
Here the drug trade—which touches even those who want nothing to do with it and turns mad and brutal for those who pursue it—has twisted and turned deadly a cloistered way of life that stretches back through generations. In the course of her journey, Lawrence happens across a musical family jamboree, a moment that suggests tradition can nurture and sustain those within it. She spends her time exploring the darker side of that embrace, the elements of tradition that hobble those who challenge it, even when they do so to survive. She lives among people who have little and will do anything to keep it. If she ever had any doubts, by the end she knows she’s one of them.