An elegant, soft spoken noir, Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" exudes desolation. Adapting Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name, Granik simultaneously develops a dreary backwoods environment while situating her layered story of deceit within it. Set in the heart of Missouri's Ozark woods, the movie revolves around despondent teenager Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a focused, incessantly serious performance), whose father vanishes after selling their house as jail bond. Serving as a surrogate mother for her two younger siblings, Ree begins a trenchant investigation into her father's whereabouts, desperately seeking to keep her family from losing the only shelter available to them. Her determination, emboldened by the discouragement of those around her, drives the narrative forward with pulsating momentum.
[Editor's Note: Eric Kohn's review of "Winter's Bone" was first published in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will open the Jury Prize winner for Best Narrative Feature this Friday.]
But Ree's close-knit community of older relatives and neighbors dare not reveal her father's fate, leaving her to probe the depths of a mystery that puts her life in immediate but undefined danger. However, "Winter's Bone" has less in common with conventional suspense or mystery than any plot synopsis might suggest. Almost exclusively based around the strengths of Lawrence's downbeat mood, it's first and foremost a character study. John Hawkes, as Ree's uncle Teardrop, provides the ideal counterpoint to her skepticism. He's both protective of her needs and infuriated by her curiosity. The juxtaposition between them makes for an engaging conflict of interests, but "Winter's Bone" places the drama in such a meditative world that the antagonism morphs into a tone poem with random inflections of genre conventions.
Much of "Winter's Bone" is informed by offscreen events. Ree's elusive father emerges as a character based on the way various people discuss his moral ambiguity and the strain he has caused for his family. Ree herself can't find the words to describe him; her younger siblings simply don't understand why he matters. The movie derives tension from the ambiguity surrounding the man's true nature, which even Ree struggles to figure out. His absence becomes an anti-presence, haunting each fragile moment when Ree tries to hunt him down. Like "No Country for Old Men," death and other grave matters take on a ghostly power through the extent to which they are left to viewers' imaginations.
Because it relies so heavily on a singular mood, "Winter's Bone" requires a patient audience willing to accept the story's gradual progression. Avoiding the easy routine of climax-building clues or even a single bullet fired (although that nearly happens at least once, playing off expectations of an obvious outcome), Granik invests in the revelatory abilities of her young lead. Ree embodies familial protection against all odds, a matriarchal figure forced into that position against her will. She's at once tragic and admirable as she goes about her quest, but the real success of "Winter's Bone" -- even if it seems a bit dry at times -- comes from that precise clash of feelings. By its extraordinary final shot, the movie has transcended its plot specifics and attained an emotional realism that validates the unusual slow burn approach.