It's been a long time since a film has conveyed a culture, and a sense of place, with such telling precision. At the same time, Winter's Bone thrums with suspense.
That's no easy feat - combining documentarylike attention to an environment and its people with all the elements of a pulse-quickening mystery thriller - but Granik, who wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, pulls it off. And then some.
At the center of Winter's Bone is Jennifer Lawrence, a young actress with a few credits (including a significant role in 2008's Charlize Theron drama The Burning Plain). She takes hold of the character of Ree and runs with it. She runs with it across the barren hollers, where scrawny horses snort into the cold mountain air. She runs with it to roadside bars where she doesn't belong, to the hilltop home of cousins involved in running drugs, to a lake that's daunting and dark.
Ree's journey begins with a visit from a bail bondsman: Her father, whose involvement with a meth ring landed him in trouble with the law, has disappeared. If he doesn't show up for the court date, his home - the home Ree shares with her two young siblings, and with their mother - will be taken out from under them.
Ree's mother is helpless, broken. She can't fend for herself, let alone her children. It's up to Ree to hold things together. A neighbor, gruff but kindly, brings food over when she can, but money is tight, the kids hungry.
When Ree takes her brother and sister squirrel-hunting, and comes back and skins the thing, it's a moment of triumph - but a grim moment, too, that speaks to their dire circumstance.
With some help from her uncle, an addict named Teardrop (John Hawkes), but mostly on her own, Ree sets out to track her dad down. There are kin who may know where he is, but nobody's willing to help; in fact, they're unwilling, and recoil at her inquiries.
Winter's Bone examines a culture where people set their own rules, make their own laws, keep to themselves. When outsiders interfere - or even insiders, like Ree - the guard goes up, and the guns come out. Ree could be one of those squirrels: hunted down, strung up.
Her efforts to navigate the tricky terrain of family allegiance, of family mistrust, and to survive, are formidable. The film, likewise, is made of potent stuff.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies