"I'm looking for my dad," declares Ree Dolly, and as she says the words, a wolf we didn't even know was lurking uncurls from its sleep and walks into the sunlight. It's that kind of foreboding atmosphere that makes Debra Granik's astonishing Winter's Bone such a taut thriller, but it's the movie's soul that makes it worth watching.
The terrifying violence here is almost always implied rather than depicted, and from the beginning we suspect that Ree's father may have fallen victim to it. He'd better show up soon, dead or alive-Ree has to find him and haul his sorry carcass to court, where he's to be tried (again) for cooking meth in the depressed Ozarks town where the movie is set.
Ree, beautifully played by Jennifer Lawrence, is a movie heroine like none I've seen. She's a quiet, proud 17-year-old whose main duty is taking care of her much younger siblings and mentally ill mom now that her dad has abandoned them. Her closest fictional relation is probably Batman. There's a whole web of deceit that Ree has to uncover, and she uses good old-fashioned sleuthing and jut-jawed determination to go where the law can't or won't to defend her imperiled family.
There have been maybe a dozen neo-Westerns in the last few years, some of them tremendously accomplished. You can probably add Winter's Bone to that list. What this movie has that can't be found in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or No Country for Old Men, though, is an old-fashioned heart. Granik and Daniel Woodrell (who wrote the novel the movie is based on) keep us from getting pulled down into despair by human cruelty because they show us human kindness as well-especially Ree's unfailing love for her siblings and mom.
What Ree ultimately has to do in order to safeguard her family is something you'd probably only see in a Greek tragedy (the movie is rated R for violence and some swearing). But when we see her with her sister and brother, we understand why all the pain and effort were worth it.