“It will come to you, this love of the land,” Scarlett O’Hara’s father tells her early in Gone With The Wind, but it takes her three more hours of screen time and several years to understand the lesson fully. That’s not a problem for Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the gutsy heroine of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Ree lives in a backwater of Missouri among meth cookers who seem to exist in a parallel universe, inhabiting the same physical space as cops and highways and department stores and high schools – all the attributes of a modern lawful society – yet clinging unquestioningly to a tribal order that seems primal and inviolable.
Ree, saddled with an ailing, mentally-absent mother and two young siblings, exhibits at 17 a range of outdoorsy skills that would make her a formidable contestant on "Survivor." By turns we see her chopping wood, shooting squirrels, and making whatever meals she can for her brother and sister with what scraps of food she can hunt herself or acquire from neighbors. Her face is often a blank, possessing a dull stubborn courage that occasionally breaks out into flashes of tart anger. She does not question the rules of the world she’s been born into, but at a tender age has learned to navigate them with skill and cunning – all of which she must employ when the law comes looking for her fugitive father, who will cause her to forfeit her home if he doesn’t show up in court. Ree must find her father if she’s to save her home, and she goes about this task with as much pluck and persistence as Scarlett ever showed in the defense of sacred Tara.
The film’s first act is masterful, establishing Ree’s predicament with efficient clarity and parading before us a cast of increasingly unsavory characters from her extended family. As Ree determinedly questions a number of extremely reticent relatives about her father’s fate – aided only by her shifty, tattooed, coke-addicted uncle Teardrop (a superb John Hawkes) – we sense the mystic bonds that tie humans to the land they live on, as well as the tribal and familial connections that form the first “green shoots” of what would someday become nations were there not already a nation on top of them. These people are dyed-in-the-wool criminals, every one of them, but that’s completely tangential to the moral structure in which they live – a finely-attuned network of interrelationships, etiquette, and economic dependency, over which presides a formidable elder named Thump.
Ree’s relentless determination to find out her father’s whereabouts puts her at odds with a system of local etiquette as finely calibrated as that of Victorian England or feudal Japan; she knows she’s disturbing this delicate social ecosystem’s precarious balance of power, and her neighbors repeatedly warn her of it. The keepers of this etiquette are primarily the women, the wives and mothers – in repeated close-ups of their stern, unsmiling, disapproving faces, framed against run-down kitchens and leafless wintry trees and bleak grey skies, Granik evokes the collective power of a relentlessly secretive social order. The Mafia’s “omerta” code has nothing on the meth-cookers of Missouri – here, the cardinal sin is to talk about anything, ever, period.
The tribal qualities of Winter’s Bone, and its sense of timelessness, elevate it above being yet another grim indie crime flick. Yet as pitch-perfect as the first hour is, the film’s second half feels lacking. The story hasn’t been thought through all the way; the structure seems half-baked. Having created this forbidding world and a heroine to punch through it with persistent inquiry, Granik and co-writer Anne Roselini seem unwilling to explore the full consequences of Ree’s hornet’s-nest-stirring. Much time is spent setting up the unsavory and dangerous characters Ree must deal with, but in the last half-hour, these individuals, and the threat they evoke, fade too abruptly. We feel short-changed, never really getting a chance to dive into the belly of the beast or experience the full limits of Ree's strength. When the credits suddenly roll, it feels as if there’s been a mistake – as if a reel or two had been accidentally left off the projector.
Flaws notwithstanding, Winter’s Bone is absolutely worth watching, and potential viewers shouldn’t be put off by its seemingly grim, bleak, poverty-stricken milieu. The story could just as well have been set in ancient Greece as in the Missouri Ozarks; its lean economy and swift momentum feel classical in the best sense of the term.