Sept. 8 2010 12:00 AM

'Winter's Bone' is an atmospheric chiller


Near the start of “Winter’s Bone” (opening Friday At Celebration!Lansing), we hear “Farther Along,” that old Southern hymn that asks why hard-working, faithful people often struggle while the wicked and crooked prosper: “Often I wonder why I must journey over a road so rugged and steep/While there are others living in comfort, while with the lost I labor and weep.”

The lyrics would surely speak to Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl in the Ozarks who had to drop out of high school to look after her two younger siblings after her drug-dealing dad disappeared and her mother “went crazy,” slipping into a nearcatatonic state.

Ree’s days are full of splitting firewood, hanging laundry out on a clothesline, cooking meager meals and taking care of everybody except herself. Although she’s busy enough, she’s about to be stuck with one more chore: finding her derelict dad, who put up the house for his bail bond. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, Ree realizes, the Dollys will lose their house.

Family ties have turned into a noose around Ree’s slender neck; during a visit to her old school, she looks on enviously at the Junior ROTC cadets parading around the gym. For someone with little education and no job prospects, the military seems like the only way to go.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, “Bone” is both a manhunt and an evocative journey through a closed-off culture in which old-style Southern manners (people wait to be invited into homes and, as Ree tells her brother, you “never ask for what ought to be offered”) collide with contemporary despair and desperation. Ree’s father had been cooking crystal meth, the designer drug of the destitute, and most of her relatives seem to be either strung out on illegal substances or surviving on the sale of them. Michael McDonough’s superb cin ematography captures the natural wonder of the Ozark forests and the grungy, weather-worn homes and people in Ree’s circle. The colors are sun-faded and rain-washed. Lawns of dried-up grass are littered with wrecked cars and ringed by rusty barbedwire fences; peeling paint is not hard to find, and cinder blocks serve as doorsteps.

Director Debra Granik maintains the tone of authenticity in her often understated scene set-ups and the low-key but deeply felt performances. Several of her actors are non-professionals, although no one seems the least bit amateurish or out of place. Lawrence, who played Kim Basinger’s defiant daughter in “The Burning Plain,” is simply extraordinary, immediately conveying the weariness and determination in Ree’s soul as she haunts the bars, backwoods and burnedout buildings of her community.

This is a society in which gender lines are still clearly defined, Courtesy Photo and women tend to do what their husbands tell them, lest they suffer the consequences. “I said ‘shut up’ already once -- with my mouth,” Ree’s unsteady uncle, known as Teardrop (John Hawkes, who makes powerful use of his soft voice and hard stare), tells his talkative wife. Despite his sense of loyalty to his brother, Teardrop will be one of the few men who shows any sympathy to Ree. Yet there’s unpredictability in their relationship, which has obviously been shaped by years of distrust and disappointment.

Similar strains can be seen in Ree’s dealings with a group of rough-hewn women who might be the Ozarks’ answer to the Weird Sisters in “Macbeth.” They may not foretell the future, but they’re well-versed in the past, particularly the most unsavory incidents and practices, and their eerie wisdom will eventually benefit Ree. In her world, it’s not just about who you know, it’s also about what they know, what they’re willing to tell and what secrets they’ll never share. For many of them, silence isn’t merely golden -- it’s a matter of life or death.