Forget the fact that the settings and characters of Winter’s Bone fail to meet the iconic visual standards of classic Hollywood film noir, the haunting story and lead performances by Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes cut straight to the corrupted heart at the center of all great noirs.

Set and filmed in the heart of the Ozarks in rural Southwest Missouri, the film centers on seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence). As the film opens, Ree is the caretaker of her family, looking after her younger brother and sister and tending to her nearly catatonic mother. Ree’s father, Jessup, has been arrested for cooking meth and has a rapidly approaching court date. When the local sheriff, Baskin (Garret Dillahunt), stops by Ree’s humble house and informs her that he is unable to find Jessup, she stonewalls him, claiming ignorance about his whereabouts. Baskin then tells her that Jessup put up the house and the timberland it sits on to cover his bond, so if he fails to show for his court date, Ree loses the house and she and her family will be homeless. Given the circumstances, Ree makes the only sensible decision available to her: find Jessup on her own.

From this basic plot, co-writer/director Debra Granik spins a story that finds its roots in the differing views of what it means to be a family. While Ree believes in the traditional ideal of a family that looks after its own, where the less-fortunate members are helped in times of need, most of her extended family would rather pretend that she and her siblings no longer exist. In seemingly every direction Ree turns, she encounters one relation after another involved in the local meth trade. While all of these people that are supposed to be her family claim not to know where Jessup has disappeared to, they all advise her, with more than just a hint of menace, that she stop asking questions and just let things be. Even her Uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), Jessup’s frightening meth-head brother — who is also one of the few relations that actually still seems to give a damn about her — tries to convince her to give up the hunt. Eventually, Ree starts to fear that she is looking for a dead man, and even worse, his own family might be responsible for his death.

Given the subject matter, Granik narrowly avoids letting her film fall into the category of exploitation. She accomplishes this by filming on actual locations where the story is set. This gives the film a lived-in feel that provides a wealth of accurate details: rusted-out cars sit next to work sheds with old license plates hanging from their doors; dogs are chained to posts in the front yards while skinny cats wander around them; large, round bales of hay become playthings for children to run across. If Granik had shot her film anywhere else, these details wouldn’t be present and the film would have felt false, an outsider’s view of what they assume rural poverty in the Ozarks looks like. With the accuracy of what such a hardscrabble life looks like, an even tone that refuses to condescend, and a pitch-perfect cast, the film moves past the simple exploitation of poverty that would have wrecked it, into a transcendent story about one girl trying to survive and do the right thing by her siblings and her conscience.

While the entire cast does very good work, the relationship between Ree and Teardrop is at the heart of the film and its look at what it means to be family. If Lawrence or Hawkes had fumbled their characters in any way, the film would not work. Lawrence gives a star-making turn, playing Ree as a pragmatist who is still capable of making the type of bad decisions that a teenager in over her head would be prone to. She maintains a cool exterior with the sheriff and several of her more unsavory relatives, but when she allows herself a moment of relaxation among friends or her immediate family, her face betrays a wealth of emotions running from fear to stubborn pride to a subtle sense of humor, all without over-playing the material. Ree is a rich character and Lawrence handles her with the grace, vulnerability, and strength that the material demands. Just as good is Hawkes. He nails his portrayal of a man at war with the law, his family, and his conscience. While winning the battle against the law and holding a wary stalemate with his less loyal family members, his conscience shows no signs of going down without a fight. Having lived outside of the law for as long as he has, he knows that the second his conscience gets the better of him, is the moment he can start counting his life expectancy in days, not years. He wears the hard-won experience and exhaustion on his face and in his intense glare. A frightening man who represents all of the bad turns that Ree’s family has taken; these traits also make him her best ally. This is an irony that Hawkes understands, letting just the right amount of menace and tenderness inform their scenes together.

It’s hard to say enough good things about a film like Winter’s Bone. Even though the story is so dark, I felt exhilarated when I left the theater. Not because Granik is an amazing stylist who knows how to pump up the adrenaline, but because she created an instant classic film noir that sticks its landing. As a critic, it’s not often that I stumble across such an accomplished piece of work. It’s playing in very limited release, so it may take some extra effort to seek it out, but it’s more than worth it.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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