Debra Granik's first feature, "Down To The Bone," was my introduction to Vera Farmiga, and as introductions go, it was impressive. The film is a solid if familiar tale of addiction, distinguished by Granik's eye for detail and her work with actors. Farmiga's natural, honest approach won her wide acclaim, and I'm fairly sure the same will be true for Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone," the latest film from Granik, which opens Friday in limited release.
Granik's new film is hillbilly noir, a deliberate, moody little story about a girl chasing the ghost of her bad-boy father, desperate to provide for herself and the family he left behind. Ree Dolly (Lawrence) has been raised hard, so when her father disappears and leaves her in charge of her younger brother and sister and her mother, who is so severely mentally broken that even the most basic tasks of motherhood seem beyond her, Ree is more than up to the challenge.
Problem is, unless she produces her father, she's going to lose the land and the house they all live in. Her father skipped bail, and everything they own is on the line. Ree knows who to ask to figure out where her father is, but the more she asks, the more she realizes her father vanished for a reason, and maybe she doesn't want to know what that reason is.
Lawrence is in pretty much the entire movie, and she's an arresting presence. Stripped down and real, with a strength in the face of some serious adversity that is convincing. Her extended family is explained as a sort of Ozark mountain people Mafia, a loose network of meth dealers and manufacturers and runners and users, all bound by blood and marriage, and the further she digs into it, looking for her father, the more she upsets the order of things. Women don't get to challenge the men about the way things are run, and if there are question, they don't get to ask them. Ree refuses to accept that, though, and she challenges her way up the ladder, eventually putting herself in harm's way when she crosses lines that simply aren't crossed. And especially not from some little girl.