There’s a real danger in making movies about the destitute. Sometimes the attempt to be realistic and brutally honest, well, it comes off as exploitative and mean. Such is almost the case in Winter’s Bone, which takes an unflinching look at the community of meth-makers in the Ozarks of Missouri. However, the compelling nature of the plot is enough to help the film avoid any pitfalls and succeed as a drama.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, 17-year-old daughter of a meth cook named Jessup who has not been seen in several weeks. Jessup is out on bail and expected back in court in a few days, and the sheriff warns Ree that her father put the family house and land up for his bond. If he doesn’t show, they will lose their home.
Ree sets out to find her father, leaving her two younger siblings at home with their catatonic mother. Her extended family is unwilling or unable to help, warning her to mind her own business lest she attract the wrath of Thump Milton, the head of the meth trade in the Ozarks. Eventually, Ree gets into real trouble, until her father’s brother Teardrop, a hard and violent man, decides to help her despite the consequences.
To say much more would spoil it, but let it suffice to say that the film is not about to let everything come up roses for Ree and Teardrop.
John Hawkes turns in an unbelievable performance as Teardrop, capturing the monster just below the surface. Credit must go to the casting director, who somehow found people with acting ability who could be made to look like they’d be doing meth their whole lives. Winter’s Bone is not for the squeamish (if the thought of watching someone skin and disembowel a squirrel makes you blush, you’re in for a ride), but it is a tense drama worthy of its Oscar buzz.