Spread the word: The hillbilly noir Winter's Bone is an instant classic 

Part mountain noir, part mythological odyssey, Winter's Bone combines the pull of a good mystery with an atmosphere of real danger, in service of one of the best backdoor detective stories in years. Jennifer Lawrence plays 17-year-old high-school dropout Ree Dolly, who spends her days taking care of her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings while trying to make the most of whatever she can grow or kill on her family's tree-covered property. Then the sheriff shows up one day and warns Ree that her meth-cooking deadbeat father is due in court, and that their house and land has been put up as bond.

Not willing to trust her family's fate to the state (which she's been raised to distrust) or her scattered relations (who are almost all crooks), Ree starts trudging up and down the mountain and knocking on doors, trying to sniff out clues to where her dad has disappeared to this time. But the kinds of questions she's asking make the local drug lords nervous. Soon Ree learns — along with the audience — just how brutal her blood cousins can be.

Winter's Bone was a sensation at this year's Sundance film festival, winning the U.S. Dramatic Feature Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. But unlike a lot of hyped-up Sundance films that seem more pedestrian at sea level, this one deserves its reputation. It's beautifully shot and acted, especially by John Hawkes, playing Lawrence's temperamental uncle, and Dale Dickey, playing a shrewish moll. And while writer-director Debra Granik goes for an unforced, naturalistic feel, the plot of the Daniel Woodrell novel that she and co-writer Anne Rosellini adapted never lacks for incident or variety. Granik follows Ree's quest from the Missouri Ozarks to the suburban house of her father's ex-girlfriend in Arkansas and a cattle auction where she knows the local crime boss will be. At every step, the heroine meets another batch of dangerous people who try to throw her off the scent. And so the screws tighten, scene by scene.

The movie's dialogue is flavorful without veering too far to the inauthentic — Ree, for example, refers to herself as a "bred and buttered" member of the Dolly clan. And Granik gives each new phase of the investigation its own memorable look and feel, whether Ree's running through a sun-dappled barn or she's being rowed out onto a moonlit lake by her family's matriarchs. In fact, Winter's Bone never missteps as a crime picture or as a regional film. If anything, it has the feel of one of those small genre films of the 1970s and '80s that came and went without much fuss, only to be discovered by cinephiles decades later. But why wait? Movies as gripping and distinctive as this one shouldn't be marginalized. A classic is a classic, no matter the vintage.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com


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