That girl is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year old who is surrogate mother to her little sister and brother. Their mother ‘don’t talk much’, Ree says, and mostly stays indoors, suffering, we assume, from depression. Their dad, Jessup, has disappeared, and it’s his absence that haunts and drives ‘Winter’s Bone’. His family has even less money than usual – ‘We’re just a little short on cash right now,’ Ree tells a neighbour when asking if their horse can feed with theirs – and police and bail bonders are sniffing around their land: Jessup has a court date approaching, and if he jumps bail, which looks likely, the family will lose their home. Not for the first time, Ree refuses to buckle under official pressure or threat of harm. ‘I’ll find him,’ she promises. ‘I said, I’ll find him.’
Ree becomes our eyes and ears on a dark and grim journey through her community, a warped network of uncles, aunts and cousins, most of whom live in shacks and rundown farms and are a hair’s breadth from the crystal meth scene that looks to be the area’s main industry. We realise soon that Jessup’s disappearance must be linked to this dark world, and the police tell Ree that her dad has been ‘cooking again’. During Ree’s odyssey, we meet a list of haunting characters, at the top of which is Jessup’s brother, Teardrop, who looks gaunt, ill and dangerous, snorts meth with one hand and is ready to raise the other to anyone who dares cross him. Violence is a shared language. ‘Didn’t he shoot your daddy one time?’ asks one character of Ree, talking of another.
Granik balances the pace and intrigue of a mystery thriller with total compassion for Ree, played with much skill by Lawrence. In scenes with Ree’s brother and sister, Lawrence shows the caring, intelligent side of Ree – the same emotional intelligence that leads her to negotiate her father’s absence with such resourcefulness and resolve. The film threatens to get stuck on a single note of gothic bleakness, but Granik punctuates this cloud of gloom with scenes of astonishing tension, including one tender episode of a grandma singing a lullaby during a family party and another involving a stand-off with a policeman. And the film reaches a climax of dread and terror in a final, nighttime, lake-borne scene during which our feelings mirror the look of absolute fear and desperation on Ree’s face.