Winter’s Bone is a glimpse into a world you didn’t know existed. This winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize paints a cold grey dog-tired landscape of dreary trash-strewn poverty. Not dirty rotting trash, but broken toy parts, rusted auto parts and plywood planks. It’s as if everything is either rescued from the dump, or has been laying around the yard so long no one notices it anymore. It’s a cliché come to life, but you are uncomfortable realizing it might be real.
Into this bleak life we are introduced to the resilient Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence. She’s taken on the responsibility of raising her younger brother and sister because her mother is near-catatonic and her father is on the lam. In the midst of making potato soup, shepherding the kids to school and teaching them survival skills, she is told that her father has jumped bail. A bail for which he has put up their family home and land as collateral, and if he does not show up for his hearing, the property will be seized.
The younger children are still blissfully oblivious to the threat of homelessness, shielded by big sister, and are content to play among hay bales, pieces of plywood and a trampoline between survival lessons on how to load shotguns, skin their dinner and make squirrel stew.
With more bravery than sense, Ree persists in trying to track down her father, going to places that have an unwritten rule not to visit, lest someone hears of it or your association with them leads to the law paying a visit. Because in this place, there’s only lawlessness and an almost tribal code.
One wonders what people here in the Ozark Mountains do for a living, because it is a meager existence. The implication is moonshine, pot and crystal meth, all substances that can be made or grown on the vast forbidding territory that is filmed to show its dreariness.
Just like the back woods stereotype, everyone’s related in some way, and a favorite expression about the Dollys is “Dolly bred and buttered.” Ree says this with pride and irony as she defends herself against these people who have devolved into an evil secretive cult-like existence.
As Ree continues her quest, with paltry assistance from friends and relatives (which are usually accompanied by threats or violence), we think this marvelous, tough, capable girl can rise above her miserable life and terrible circumstances to escape and have a better life. And she is determined; she will do anything to save her homestead, and I mean anything. It’s heartbreaking to see the resolution of her father’s disappearance and how she has to prove it.
We see her try to sign up for the army so she can get the cash bonus that might pay the bounty hunter for her bail-jumping father’s debt. We fantasize that after she gets exposed to the rest of the world, she may have a chance.
But when she’s finally back home sitting with her brother and sister, youngsters who had to fend for themselves while Ree searched, she’s asked by them, “Are you gonna leave?” Ree replies, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Sadly, for her, it’s probably true.