Ree is hard as fuck.

Winter’s Bone is a hard-case movie that mixes noir with gritty realism as a matter of course. Some people would liken it to other Southern Gothic films like Shotgun Stories or Undertow and while it does feel related to those, it’s also got the beats of a detective movie. Even though this could easily have been a very stylized blend, there’s a lot of restraint and control in the setting to make sure it feels real to us. This enables some pretty amazing performances with actors you know you’ve seen elsewhere (though there are few well known faces here) pretty much disappearing into their roles.

Jennifer Lawrence, playing 17 year old Ree Dolly, is a relative newcomer and delivers one of the best performances of the year. She’s awesome, getting across a girl who, while standing apart, is totally a product of her environment. Her responsibility to her fucked up family has made her a tough, resourceful, and utterly self-reliant person who while proud, is not afraid to ask for help. In her own element, she’s got major presence in spite of her age and the fact that she’s a girl. Even though they might be dismissive or elusive, adults seem to pay attention to her.

This is owed in part to who her family is. The plot of Winter’s Bone is very simple. Ree’s father was a meth cook, he got into some trouble and put up their land on the bail bond and then disappeared. Ree suspects someone in her community knows where he is and goes looking for him so that she can convince him to go to his court date and spare his family from losing their land and their home. Pretty much everyone around is related but Jessop Dolly has pissed people off before and no one wants to tell Ree anything. She goes around to different people and asks questions, showing us a cast of colorful characters who are as worn and grim as their surroundings. All of them are resigned to their lives, taking an ownership that is philosophically admirable in terms of its authenticity. This is an odd element because these people have it kind of shitty. But even Ree, who has a healthy sense of contempt for this environment and the people that populate it, never thinks about leaving with or without her siblings except for where it might have made her the money to keep them going.

On the other hand, her uncle is a badass named Teardrop who is covered in prison tattoos. There’s a menace to Teardrop that is incredibly atmospheric, coming across in his words and his deliberate movement. When he does act on it, with sudden violence, he is utterly calm and even restrained. He seems to do what he does as a matter of course, fully invested in who he is. After a confrontation with some kin he suspects had something to do with his brother’s disappearance, the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) tries to pull he and Ree over. When the cop approaches, gun out and ready, Teardrop lets him see his rifle in the rearview window and asks, with characteristic calm purpose “is this going to be our time?”

What makes Teardrop so crazy is that he’s being played by John Hawkes. This is the guy who played Sol in Deadwood and who has made a career of playing skinny, twitchy little guys. He’s also played many characters with hearts of gold. To call Teardrop a departure is not saying the half of it. I like John Hawkes a lot and he is full on win in this film.

Winter’s Bone is one of those movies that not a lot of people see. It’s a slow burn that requires an acquired taste. You have to develop an ear for the dialogue, an affinity for the performances, and a participatory disposition toward the setting. And you have to do it quickly. You have to forget that these are scummy rednecks and see the underlying philosophy of their way of life. These are not stupid people, but they are very committed people. They are steeped in a tradition that just doesn’t make sense to outsiders, where everything is bound up in family ties, respect, and consequences. In this way, it is not unlike a mafia film. The same basic themes infuse both types of cultures, or perhaps all criminal cultures, but Winter’s Bone lacks the glitz and pop currency of a modern mafia film, whether it’s about Italians or Irish or whoever. The rednecks of Winter’s Bone are an American phenomenon. They don’t care who came from where on which boat, they’ve grown into their land and it into them and there’s a definite sense that even the criminal enterprise of meth cooking wouldn’t be present if not for the collapse of whatever industry once supported this corner of Missouri.

My final praise for this movie is in that Ree is such an excellent female protagonist in a landscape dominated by males. It seems a bit trite to point this out, even. That Ree is a young girl and not a young man is important, though if only because she could very easily have been a boy and I bet a lot of people would have expected her to be if they knew the story but not the character.

Also, I kind of feel like Ree and Brendan from Brick should be dating.