Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the Ozarks with her family, but life is tough there and things are not helped by her currently absent father. Her mother is practically catatonic, and she has to spend her time looking after both her and her younger brother and sister to whom she essentially acts as a parent, making sure they go to school and are looked after and fed regularly. However, their home is now under threat thanks to the Sheriff appearing one day and telling Ree that her father placed the house up for collateral towards his bail, and now that he has apparently gone on the run, the family could soon be thrown out...
So what else is there for the girl to do but turn detective? That's what Winter's Bone pretty much was, an amateur sleuthing tale dressed up as an austere drama set among austere folks, so just like Philip Marlowe before her Ree ends up way over her head, but with a dedication to solve the mystery that does her proud. Lawrence won most of the plaudits when this was released, but everyone who appeared was ideal, including those locals who assisted the production by taking roles in front of the camera, giving the story an air of absolute authenticity. So much so that many were in the unimpressed camp, as director Debra Granik made few concessions to those wanting friendlier entertainment.
The title says it all, this film was not a warm experience, with everyone guarded in one way or another, and many actively suspicious of their fellow man (and woman). This makes Ree's attempts to find out the information she needs - where has her father gone? - an uphill struggle, as getting people here to give anything away is like pulling teeth, not much good for our heroine who has to learn her detective work one bit at a time. This does land her in tricky situations, but she and her family are already in a tricky situation, as if they are thrown out of their home they literally have nowhere to go - she tells one character that she risks living in a field with them should the worst come to the worst.
And this is such a chilly film that you can well believe her. Yet thanks to Lawrence and a keen adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel, we do understand that Ree is not content to allow her circumstances dictate her actions: she is not going to allow herself to sink into an existence of drugs and depression as many of those in the area might have done, including her father, wherever he is. Not only that, but she's not going to allow her brother and sister to do that either, and her conscientious actions make for a heroine both moral and vulnerable. Just like Marlowe, she does end up beaten up at one point and like Jake Gittes in Chinatown bears the proof of that on her face for the rest of the movie.
The locals she does meet who stand in her way are an unsettling bunch who at first warn her away, then turn to more physical expressions of their disapproval. When Ree is taken to a burnt out shack and told that her parent has died there, she is canny enough to see that the damage is not recent, and carries on her quest. Among the professionals in the cast are John Hawkes as Ree's uncle Teardrop, who starts as a menace and ends up almost heroic in stature, Sheryl Lee as someone willing to give up more information than perhaps she should, and Dale Dickey as one of those obstacles to the truth, all three veterans of cult television and proving that they were just as capable on the big screen. The fact that there are points in this where you could well believe that it's all about to turn Texas Chain Saw Massacre contributes strongly to the tension, but Winter's Bone is an easier film to admire than enjoy - and you do admire Ree. Music by Dickon Hinchcliffe.