Set in rural Missouri, the protagonist of Winter's Bone is 17-year-old Ree (Lawrence) who has a lot on her shoulders. Ree is both the caregiver for her catatonic mother and the parental figure for her two younger siblings, and she must also keep the family's primitive cabin running as best she can. At the beginning of the story, Ree learns that her father skipped bail but put her family's farmhouse up as collateral, meaning Ree's dad must attend his scheduled court appearance the following week or the family will be left homeless. Thus, Ree sets off to hunt down her old man, meeting a host of frightening folk along the way, most of whom constitute her extended family. Suffice it to say, Ree's search for her father rustles up quite a few feathers amongst the locals.
The main problem with Winter's Bone is that the plot is powered by hopelessly contrived character behaviour. After the locals are impassive and unwilling to help Ree, they subsequently turn pointlessly brutal in the second act only to become implausibly helpful in the end. It doesn't help that the relationships between the characters are inadequately explained, generating confusion about how person B knows person A, and what (if any) bloodline they share. Also worsening matters is the dialogue, which often sounds much too screenwriter-esque. The narrative is rather weak, as well. A genuinely masterful thriller ought to have intricate details and intelligent surprises to keep you riveted throughout, but these necessities were lost on Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini. Granik succeeded in establishing a dark, at times engaging and even melancholic atmosphere, but the suspense gradually fizzles out. The mystery starts out intriguingly enough, but, on account of the implausible character behaviour and the meandering pace, interest dissipates long before the mystery is revealed.
Winter's Bone is set - and was filmed - in the Ozarks. To their credit, Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough managed to capture the dejected beauty of the landscape in an effective way. The sense of place is visceral and occasionally gripping, and the detailed images are at times breathtaking to behold. Yet, the effect wears off quickly as the narrative continues to drag. Winter's Bone should have been enthralling and emotionally charged, but the filmmakers failed to achieve this - it's distanced and aloof when it should be involving and/or stirring. It was thus not able to captivate this reviewer to any commendable degree. The film did not need mindless Hollywood action elements, but instead more tension, intrigue, and a snappier pace. Additionally, for what's supposed to be a "gritty, grim and real" movie, Winter's Bone ends on an improbably optimistic note. Sure, a depressing ending would have been lacklustre as well, but it's even worse for the film's integrity to be sacrificed. Sorry, but give me movies like Toy Story 3 or The King's Speech over this malarkey any day of the week.
To the credit of the performers, the acting across the board is uniformly strong. For many (this reviewer included), this 2010 feature was the first opportunity to see the work of 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, whose career prior to Winter's Bone was relegated to small roles in TV shows and obscure movies. Winter's Bone represented her first chance to show her acting chops to a more mainstream crowd, and her performance is excellent, forceful and convincing. She is without doubt the strongest aspect of the movie, and she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Also of note in the cast is the excellent John Hawkes as Teardrop (who was also nominated for an Oscar), and Garret Dillahunt who's amiable as the sheriff.
At a running time of over 100 minutes, Winter's Bone lacks adequate intrigue and suspense, not to mention it drags and leaves you feeling underwhelmed despite well-nuanced performances and a richly atmospheric setting. It's also a problem for a "grim, gritty and real" movie to come off as contrived in the scripting department. While the Oscar attention is hardly surprisingly, all of the other acclaim the film is receiving is, frankly, head-scratching.