‘Winter’s Bone’ a small film with big power 

Bleak are the woods and harsher still are the countenances and social codes of the kinfolk encountered by uninitiated Ozarks teenager Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone.” As Ree navigates this treacherous landscape in search of her missing father, director and co-writer Debra Granik delivers a realist, folkloric and eventually gothic coming-of-age drama — and a wonderful film.

Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel by Granik and Anne Rosellini, the movie is in the vein of independent cinema that features stories about people struggling to thrive in pockets of poverty, in this case southwestern Missouri’s Ozarks region.

Here, 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) hopes to join the Army and travel. In the meantime, she’s accepting scraps from neighbors and shooting squirrels to feed her two siblings and mentally ill mother.

Between the opening lullaby and the nightmarish climax, Ree’s journey transpires, beginning with the news that Ree’s meth-cooking father has vanished after getting arrested and putting up the house as bond. 

If he doesn’t appear in court, the family will be homeless.

“I’ll find him,” Ree emphatically tells the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), and, parka-clad, she heads into the woods and knocks on doors of extended-family members involved in the methamphetamine trade.

Most display a menacing guardedness when Ree asks about her father’s whereabouts.

Particularly formidable are a kingpin’s wife, named Merab (Dale Dickey), who heads a brutal sorority of sorts, and Ree’s meth-addicted uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). If she continues sleuthing, Ree might get “et by hogs,” Teardrop warns.

The kinfolk soften slightly, but still prove scary as Ree’s search progresses. A voyage into gothic horror and a grisly initiation passage precede the hope-laced closure.

Granik, whose previous feature was “Down to the Bone,” doesn’t deliver knockout drama or chill the marrow when things get primal. But she comes close.

Once you get into the alternative groove of her realist pacing, the film becomes an engrossing coming-of-age story, a distinctive place-on-the-map portrait, an observant look at clan mentalities and an example of how exquisite and satisfying small films can be.

The payoff scenes triumph. The less-than-pivotal material between the plot points — snippets of houseguest etiquette, a roomful of roots musicians, a lesson in firearm safety for the little ones — contains nuggets.

The regional phraseology doesn’t sound like it was written for a screenplay, and Granik combines the mundane and the mythic adroitly.

Also, she affirms (after working with Vera Farmiga the last time around) a knack for casting. Lawrence, an impressive rising talent, portrays Ree’s heroic determination with affectingly quiet power. 

Hawkes’ Teardrop and Dickey’s Merab — whose intense, haggard faces Granik frames indelibly — are two of the most memorable supporting characters you’ll see this year.


Winter’s Bone (3½ stars)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt

Written by Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

Directed by Debra Granik

Rated R

Running time 1 hour 45 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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