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When Debra Granik cast her as the lead in her Sundance-winning “Winter’s Bone,” Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t entirely an unknown quanity. The Kentucky native had already notched some major milestones by the time Granik picked the 19-year-old to star in her Ozarks-set drug drama, including a recurring role on a network sitcom (TBS’ short-lived “The Bill Engvall Show”) and the Venice Film Festival’s Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging talent (a prize that had previously gone to the likes of Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Abraham Attah, and Mila Kunis). But Lawrence’s work in the Oscar-nominated 2010 feature has long been hailed as her breakthrough role, announcing her as a major talent to watch before Hollywood inevitably threw her into the franchise maw with “The Hunger Games.”
Ten years later, the most remarkable aspect of Lawrence’s work in “Winter’s Bone” — the kind of demanding part few performers can pull off in any medium — is that it remains emblematic of not just her potential as an actor, but the very best parts of her work as a performer. Lawrence’s performance in the film, which rightly earned the actress her first Oscar nomination, isn’t just a harbinger of things to come, but an example of a star already working with her talent fully formed.
Lawrence proved to be a strong match for Granik’s style, which favors nuanced portrayals of potentially “unlikable” characters while resisting judgement of them. “Winter’s Bone,” in particular, is filled with characters who could otherwise come across as one-note villains in Granik’s sprawling tale. As Ree Dolly, Lawrence is both the film’s hero and its entry point, a teenager trapped in an ailing community forced to undertake horrible, Greek tragedy-level feats simply to scrape by.
While Lawrence is the unquestionable star of the film, “Winter’s Bone” shows off another key facet of what makes Lawrence’s work so formidable — not just an ability to work alongside other actors, but a desire to make them shine, too. Lawrence may be the film’s breakout talent, but “Winter’s Bone” also offered a meaty, compelling (and Oscar-nominated) part for another talent worthy of adulation. Unlike Lawrence, John Hawkes was a screen veteran when Granik cast him as Ree’s troublesome (but well-meaning) uncle Teardrop. Lawrence doesn’t just hold her own against Hawkes; the two performers enhance and elevate each other’s work. It’s a skill the actress has only continued to grow (hey, you try getting an Oscar nomination alongside Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver).
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Ree’s misadventures bring her into contact with a litany of monsters, both human (the terrifying Milton family, which owns the local economy, i.e. meth) and metaphorical (the small-town government, the community’s fraying social life, her own fears). Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, “Winter’s Bone” follows Ree as she sets out on a quest to find her missing, just-sprung-from-jail father in order to save their family home. It’s a simple enough story, but it demands much of both Ree (who has essentially become her clan’s most reliable leader in the absence of her father) and Lawrence (who must be, in the simplest of terms, both strong-willed and vulnerable).
One decade later, that uneasy balance between strength and vulnerability remains the most striking element of Lawrence’s performance. It’s no wonder she was soon cast in “The Hunger Games,” a series that essentially builds on a character very much like Ree to examine a different, horrible world. It’s a trait that has continued to run through all of Lawrence’s best work, from other franchise showings (the relaunched “X-Men” series) to her David O. Russell-directed dramedies like “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”
You never want to mess with a Lawrence character — in the face of such determination, you will surely lose — but that outcome doesn’t mean she’s to be feared so much as respected. The final, wordless shot of “Winter’s Bone” epitomizes that power, and it has lingered ever since.