Opening with an understated, mood-setting vocal performance of “The Missouri Waltz” as a soundtrack for imagery captured deep, deep within flyover country, Winter’s Bone hinges largely on the execution of a simple idea — it’s a formula mystery story set in rural Missouri.
The mystery has to do with the current whereabouts of Jessup Dolly, who put up his family’s home as bond after going to jail on charges relating to meth-cooking. The local sheriff swings by to warn 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) that if the now-absent Jessup doesn’t show up in time for an upcoming court date, she stands to lose the house that she occupies with her invalid mother and younger brother and sister — a disaster. Ree sets out on a small-scale odyssey, contacting her kin and her extended kin to see if anyone will help her track Jessup down.
The engine that drives Winter’s Bone is a sense of menace. The first stop on Ree’s journey is one branch up the family tree, where she seeks out an uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes), who sports a tiny, unremarked-upon tattoo of an “X” near the corner of one lower eyelid. Teardrop’s not willing to tell her anything, but that chilly reception is a warm embrace compared to the icy glares she gets as she ventures into the territory occupied by her more and more distant kin. Nobody even pretends to be happy to see her. Most of them warn her against digging any further. Daddy was in with some bad people. Ree knows that, and still she presses on.
The world of Winter’s Bone is full of poverty and listlessness, seemingly outside the real governance of law and ravaged by meth addiction. These people have their years written on their faces; seldom have so many hard looks been directed cameraward over the course of a single American film. From the film’s opening shots, accompanied by a plaintive vocal rendition of “The Missouri Waltz,” there’s an economy and austerity to director Debra Granik’s approach that well serves its sense of place. But this is no art-damaged film-school project.
Beyond its use of authentic and unusual locations, the film fully embraces its status as a genre piece, pushing story ahead by nervous leaps and bounds rather than parceling it out in inches. (Presumably the source material, a novel by Daniel Woodrell, helped put everything in motion.)
There is one stylistic element of Winter’s Bone that I found mildly abrasive, and that’s the decision to make southern Missouri impossibly eerie and alien-looking. Most of the film has been given a heavy, blue-green cast that enhances the film’s inherent feeling of desperation into luridness, laying on most every character the sickly pallor of the walking dead. I longed to see what the landscape might look like in its natural colors. You can feel an outsider’s fascination with the otherness of these locations in some of the imagery, too, as in a scene where the camera takes in the ruined hulks of auto bodies in somebody’s yard in a jittery, almost claustrophobic way that suggests a discomfiting sense of decay and danger. It’s an effective bit of stage-setting, sure, but it also made me think that no one who actually lives anywhere near the Ozarks is going to take note of, let alone feel the least bit hemmed in by, a bunch of old junk cluttering up someone’s yard.
But that’s a minor complaint in the face of everything the film gets right. Lawrence, especially, is terrific — unselfconscious and unsentimental — as a girl who puts her head down and hits the pavement with a grim resolve and an absence of self-pity to throw herself at the mercy of men who feel they owe her no favors and may in fact wish her ill. The film, too, is strikingly unsentimental. It has no time for backstory, moral lessons, or other cute stuff. What it comes through with is scary, molar-grinding set pieces that make its Missouri mystery story completely satisfying without compromising its integrity. A terrific little film.