Film Review: Winter's BoneGrim backwoods tale takes its time building momentum.
Six years after winning an award at Sundance for Down to the Bone, director Debra Granik returns with her follow-up, Winter's Bone, a grim story of persistence set deep in the Ozarks. Slow to get going and uningratiating, the film will be a hard sell at the box office, but its grit and the tenacity of its young heroine will resonate with some viewers.
That heroine, a high-schooler named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), faces a crisis much like that in Frozen River: A man, in this case Ree's father, has vanished owing debts that put her home in jeopardy. With two younger siblings and a barely sentient mother to care for, her only option is to scour the backwoods, searching for Dad among the not-distant-enough relatives who (literally and figuratively) litter the county, and whose criminal operations likely have something to do with his disappearance.
Winter’s Bone doesn't supply the same kind of role for Lawrence that Melissa Leo got in Frozen River: Ree's options, stop or keep going, are less dramatic than Ray Eddy's, even when continuing her search means talking to volatile people with things to hide. For much of the film, as Ree feeds the family with hand-me-down groceries and teaches the kids to hunt squirrel, Granik seems to believe it's impressive enough that she simply continues to survive.
As the action picks up—with some crone-like family gatekeepers giving Ree a beating in hopes of scaring her off—the strong presence of John Hawkes (as the vanished man's drug-addicted brother) keeps the bleak setting from overcoming the movie and gives Lawrence a bit more to play against.
Eventually, even when she's being controlled by events instead of vice-versa, Ree proves worthy to the challenge around her. Whether she'll escape her grim surroundings or simply endure them isn't a question Winter's Bone intends to ask.
-The Hollywood Reporter