Though it's set in the meth-cooking, winter-raw, poverty-stricken wilds of the Ozarks, Winter's Bone (adapted from a Daniel Woodrell novel) has a feel closer to a Greek epic. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), undertakes an odyssey that will test every ounce of her mettle and bravery. She is abused, beaten, and threatened by the Missouri-hill-folk version of the cyclops or Big Bad Wolf: hard-nosed, life-beaten women and men who can cut a person down with one nod of the head. Bergman, De Sica, or Fellini at their grittiest never dreamed up obstacles as intractable as the ones facing Ree as she struggles to save her family and home from ruin.
When Winter's Bone opens, Ree is a girl clinging to the fraying tatters of her life. With her meth-cooking father, Jessup, in prison, she becomes the backbone of the family, caring for her mentally-broken mother and two siblings who are still too young to fend for themselves. Like an Amazon, she prepares the perpetually hungry children, certain that their road ahead will be treacherous and brutal. Dragging the kids away from a yard strewn with toys, she teaches them to fire a gun, to gut a squirrel, and to cook a stew, aware that she may not live long enough to do it for them. In its dire and apocalyptic circumstances and sense of a world without allies, Winter's Bone could be a grim companion piece to the recent adaptation of The Road; both films present a physical and emotional landscape of brutality and hopelessness, salvaged only by the bonds between a family.
With her family home and timberland put up for Jessup's bond, Ree discovers that if he fails to return to prison, she will lose her only hope of survival. She sets off for the area hillsides to find him, pushing past the women who stand sentry outside ramshackle buildings emitting plumes of smoke. The women warn her away, and the men offer drugs like a waitress at a diner proffers a cup of coffee. You sense that one line or joint could lead to Ree's doom, dragging her down into the inescapable mire surrounding her.
The difficult road faced by an idiosyncratic woman is a theme director Debra Granik explored before (in Down to the Bone). Though it can often be a long, opaque slog through the woods, the primary appeal of Winter's Bone is how convincingly it conveys the strange, orthodox logic of this parallel universe. It is one of Granik's skills — her ability to immerse viewers in the outlook of these battered, pragmatic people and convince us for 100 minutes that theirs is the only reality.
What Ree encounters on her odyssey is a community (many of them related to her) that has closed ranks. As surely as the Corleone clan, this is an extended family that demands allegiance and respect. The backwoods people of this film live according to a code of conduct as labyrinthine and undeniable as that of a feudal court. Visitors must be invited into homes, a man's word is law, and women cower beneath the certainty of no second chances. Ree operates outside of this system, with no male relative willing to find her father for her. Women are the messengers, the scouts and guards of the kingdom, but it is men who rule and who determine who stays and who is ostracized. But at its core, Winter's Bone is about the fierceness of this young girl as she encounters a Brothers Grimm catalog of ghouls.