There oughtta be a law against giving a movie like Winter’s Bone a title like Winter’s Bone. There’s just something about Winter’s Bone that tells you it’s going to be a boring, dry, dour slice of life jerkoff movie… and that’s the farthest thing from the truth. In reality Winter’s Bone is a compelling, badass noir movie that happens to be set in the Ozarks, amidst a feuding clan of meth cookers. It’s a remarkable feat of genre manipulation, and it makes for a truly special movie.

Fueling all of that is the incredible performance by Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a quiet performance, the kind that knocks me out but rarely gets awards consideration because it doesn’t contain one particular clip-worthy moment. She plays Ree, a mountain girl doing her best to hold her family together in the face of crushing poverty. Her mother is all but comatose and she has two younger siblings to feed; meanwhile her no-good crank cooking daddy has put up their house for collateral on his bond during his latest arrest, and it looks like he’s not about to make his court date. 

Lawrence juggles two conflicting ends of the character spectrum with adept ease; on the one hand Ree is a survivor, a girl who will not stop in doing what needs to be done to protect her family. On the other end she’s a scared girl, lost in a world that is harsh and violent and maybe looking to kill her. Lawrence manages to create a character who is tough, who is vulnerable, who is driven but who is also maternal without allowing any of those aspects to feel like contradictions. They’re all parts of the puzzle of Ree, and they’re mostly revealed to us quietly, as Ree is a girl without many words. Buried under layers of grungy clothes it’s easy to forget that Lawrence is a heart-stopping beauty, and the performance is one without vanity. She almost never smiles in the entire film, and keeps her eyes often reduced to slits. In a better world this is your front runner for the 2010 Best Actress Oscar.

Ree walks through a post-Hatfields and McCoys landscape where the moonshine still has morphed into the crank lab. The problems are still the same, including tense relations with the local law and fierce familial connections, which gets tricky when just about everybody in the county has some of your blood. Ree’s journey through this world is the classic noir detective journey, up to and including the savage beating that the hero must take, missing only the femme fatale blonde. But while an avid moviegoer will recognize all of the noir tropes solidly in place, director Debra Granik (who co-wrote the script, an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, with Anne Rossellini) never calls attention to it. This isn’t a movie movie in that it’s not informed by decades of staring at screens. That’s there, but at the heart of Winter’s Bone is a very human story, and one that feels true. Too many filmmakers forget to include that kernel in their post or meta genre films, but Granik makes sure it’s front and center.

Knowing that it’s a noir helps get into the film; for the first 20 minutes I thought I could be watching a benign version of hicksploitation, the kind of movie where an upper class person tuts about the problems of a poor community. But this isn’t a film about the Ozarks so much as it’s a film set in the Ozarks, and as such the world around Ree doesn’t need to paint an accurate picture of hillbillies any more than The Sopranos needed to paint an accurate picture of the standard Italian American experience. This is a crime story, and just about everyone caught up in it is a criminal of some stripe. 

Lawrence’s performance is the film’s anchor, but John Hawkes delivers powerful support. He plays Teardrop, Ree’s uncle, a dangerous man frightened by the dangerous men surrounding him. Teardrop is nuanced, and at first we think he’s just kind of a total asshole, but Granik masterfully allows the story to slowly reveal where he’s coming from and by the end we get it, and we get him. Hawkes, all thin and birdlike and filthy, exudes backwoods menace. He’s the kind of guy you’d scoff at when you see him at the mall, but once you’re facing him in a thicket of trees you know he’s animal and this is his territory. Hawkes slowly boils.

Granik finds the bleak loveliness of the hills of Missouri; the film is muted but often beautiful, even amid the detritus surrounding the redneck homesteads. The film is a weird and intriguing peak into another world; as I said before it doesn’t matter how accurate the movie is but sometimes it feels incredibly true and correct, like this is what it that world is. That’s the best thing a movie can do, to transport you into another world and another life and to show you something that you’ve never seen before. While Winter’s Bone might have a formula at its heart – that of the hardboiled detective slowly making his way into a deadly conspiracy – it has something entirely different, and exciting, on its surface.

9 out of 10