Jennifer Lawrence portrays Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl trying to look after her family: two younger siblings, and a mother who’s lost her mind after years of worry about her husband, Jessup, who cooks meth and is involved in the local criminal underworld. As the movie begins, the sheriff shows up hoping to find Jessup, who’s due in court and has disappeared. It turns out that when Jessup signed his latest bail bond, he signed away title to the house and property where his family is living – meaning that if he doesn’t show up in court, they could find themselves without a place to live. The remainder of the movie follows Ree’s quest to find out what happened to her father so she can hold onto what little the family has.
This could easily be a depressing film. It starts with a long shot of the family’s ramshackle property: broken down autos and toys scattered around a cabin that seems ready to collapse. these scenes appear again and again in the film, capturing the poverty and hopelessness of these lives. Lending a strong air of authenticity, the film was shot on location in the Ozarks. The visual palate is the muted greens and browns of an Ozarks’ autumn. The environment seems perpetually ready to slide into a permanent winter, as good a metaphor as any for the lives depicted: these people aren’t struggling along in dead-end job, but have left that world behind and exist in a kind of rebel economy. There’s no suggestion of improvement here, no possibility that any character will escape his or her fate.
In spite of that (and without any Hollywood gimmickry), it is a fairly upbeat film. No matter how damaged they are, the people do look out for one another, albeit in an often gruff or offhanded way. They are resilient, resourceful and fiercly independent. And in Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal, Ree is absolutely indomitable, determined to do everything she can to look after her siblings and her mother, even if it threatens her own life. I suspect Lawrence will receive an Oscar nomination (although I doubt she’ll win over Natalie Portman in Black Swan). There’s no false bravery or histrionics here. Just an understated and highly believable performance, affecting without being affected.
Ree is the emotional and physical core of this film, but she’s also a symbol for all the strong women in this movie who keep life going as the men disappear – into jail or addiction. All the women in this film, no matter their ages, wear their difficult lives in the worry lines carved into their faces like the stark tree limbs against the wintery sky that backdrop the opening title.
Beautifully filmed and lovingly executed, Winter’s Bone is that rare movie that captures the lives of the marginalized people without patronizing them or turning them into cartoon figures.