A Homeric trip into squirrel-eating, meth-snorting America, "Winter's Bone" is a backwoods gothic tale set in a milieu where the word "milieu" probably would get you shot. With her missing father having put the family cabin and timberland up as his jail bond on a crystal-meth charge, 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has to approach her unapproachable kin to try to find the man, or find his body. Her backwoods odyssey is greeted by gun barrels, fists and three cousins who suggest the witches in "Macbeth." The danger to be found around every lopsided toolshed and car on blocks is as clear as the sense that there's no way out.
But it's heroic, too. Director Debra Granik, who adapted Daniel Woodrell's novel with co-writer Anne Rosellini, not only portrays a certain unsavory stratum of neglected America as a place of imminent peril, she exalts it: The characters all recite their lines with the gravity of the Old Testament, which is a twofold strategy. It put the world of "Winter's Bone" into a kind of timeless realm, but also reveals in those characters a defensiveness about place, poverty, need. No one is casual or affectionate, because they can neither afford it, nor are so inclined.
Lawrence may resemble a flat-toned, bloody-nosed Joan of Arc as she undergoes her trial by fire, but it's not heroics that mark "Winter's Bone," but rather an inescapable sense of place.