The Belly of the Beast

I’m a little late to the Winter’s Bone bandwagon, certainly too late for my ringing endorsement of Debra Granik’s sharply observed indie drama to count for much. But that said, if you are reading this and have not seen the film, stop at the end of this sentence and go watch it: you can come back to me later. 

Set in the grim far reaches of the Missouri Ozarks, the gray hills buttressed with crumbling lean-tos and burned-out trailers, Winter’s Bone is a terrifying portrait of the American underbelly. Ree Dolly (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old with an invalid mother and two young siblings, knows her way around guns and squirrel guts. She’s the family caretaker, and, it turns out, the muscle — when the law comes around looking for her meth-cooking father, she’s the one who goes searching for him. He’s put up the house as bond collateral, and if he doesn’t show up in court, Ree and the rest of them will be forced to leave.

Without flagging, what follows is an ingenious mixture of mystery and case study, peopled by mean, crazy fucks ever poised at their thresholds, waiting for trouble to arrive. As Ree digs deeper, her already closed-off world tightens; most of those she visits are at least distant relations, but the thickness of blood can trap as easily as it can free. The movie is shot in dusky, dirty hues that are less color than it’s negation. Where there is a spot of brightness, it comes almost as a shock — a yellow garden hose lays coiled on the cold ground like a snake.

Everything about the film works, enveloping you in this dim world even as it worries. But what anchors it, what gives it the necessary spark, is Lawrence. It’s a career-making performance, hard-nosed yet nuanced, glowering but kind. She has a soft, round face and steely eyes, which pretty much sums up Ree’s dual existence. I’ve rarely rooted for a heroine harder, and when she finally breaks down, in a creaky rowboat gutted by the sound of her wails, it almost comes as a relief. “Never ask for what oughta be offered,” Ree tells her little brother early on — but don’t be afraid to demand it, she seems to suggest. And then she does just that.

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