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Winter’s Bone (2010)

Drama Rated R

The dingy little indie Winter’s Bone packs an oomph you don’t see coming. At first this seems to be another artful account of American rural poverty (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast, Snow Angels) and then it slowly blossoms into something more. By its towering ending, the movie feels like a feminist reworking of a classical heroic myth.

Adapted by cowriter and director Debra Granik from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is set in a dismal stretch of backwoods Missouri. Junk litters the yards of dilapidated homes, women watch from windows with wary eyes and dogs, dogs and more dogs – all of them skinny – trot among the decay. It’s bleak, even before you add the fact that many residents have taken to cooking and selling methamphetamine in order to get by.

Struggling to carve out an existence here is Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl with a missing father, a near-comatose mother and two younger siblings desperately clinging to her care. She’s doing her best, with an eye to the future – “Both of you need to get over here and watch how I make it,” she says before whipping up some deer stew – yet they’re clearly barely holding on. When the sheriff arrives to tell Ree that her father, a “cooker,” has disappeared after putting the house up as his bail, she sets out to find him so that the family doesn’t lose what little home they have.

It’s a harrowing journey through a criminal, violent and downright bizarre social network. As Ree travels from one shack to another, the same pattern emerges: A suspicious woman greets Ree with aggressive annoyance before granting her an audience to a vaguely threatening male figure. He offers little information and instead tries to buy her off with a sedative of some kind: pot, hard drugs, booze. It’s clear no one wants to talk about her father – they want her to forget him – yet she carries on.

Considering Ree’s status as a young, single female – “Ain’t you got no men can do this?” one irritated neighbor asks – her task is no less daunting than Ulysses’ in “The Odyssey.” Strange creatures stand in her way, and as a woman she’s seemingly unarmed. Granik’s imagery – ominous and eerie – encourages such classical connections, especially a midnight voyage across a lake that Ree takes with three untrustworthy hags. (I use that term because they resemble nothing less than the Graeae, those sister witches of Greek mythology.)

Lawrence, a relative unknown in Hollywood, is astonishing in that scene, which involves a horrifying revelation she wisely underplays. Lawrence turns 20 this year, yet there are times in Winter’s Bone when she has the vulnerability of a middle schooler and others when she projects the weariness of middle age. Such malleability is a way of life for Ree, considering she often has to play the role of child, sibling and mother in the same day.

Equally impressive is John Hawkes (last seen on TV’s “Lost”) as Teardrop, Ree’s druggie uncle. Torn between his family loyalty, criminal ties and own addiction, Teardrop is a volatile figure. Yet he is also, on rare sober occasions, Ree’s only advocate. Hawkes never once goes for sentimentality, though; he knows it’s more important for Teardrop to represent how dangerous and unreliable Ree’s world can be.

The fact that Ree survives – indeed, arises – through all of this is the reason the movie reminded me more of a heroic myth than a Greek tragedy. Winter’s Bone by no means has a cop-out, happy ending – I don’t think such a thing exists for these people, in this place – yet its final note is hardly dour. Ree begins her journey as a victim without status; by its end she’s achieved nothing less than nobility.