Writer-Director Debra Granik throws caution to the wind with respect to the standard thrillers, and instead allows the emotions of the characters to drive the intensity rather than the situations themselves.
Jennifer Lawrence stars in what would turn out to be her big breakout role, as Ree Dolly, a young woman wise beyond her years, fully capable of the never-ending responsibilities being thrust upon her at this age. Tasked with looking after her mother, her brother and her sister in an impoverished community whose symptoms are only exacerbated by the crystal meth trade, life is not the kindest to Ree. The situation is worsened when she is now the prime target for numerous people in the community, as a result of actions taken by her absent father.
In a subdued cat and mouse game, Ree goes hunting for her father, but this is never about her. Throughout the film we are shown just how selfless Ree is, and the resolution in mind is not for her own sake, but for her remaining family’s well-being and safety. Danger rears its ugly head many times, and for all its subtlety elsewhere make no mistake, these scenes are intense and grim. It’s not over-acted or over-played, it remains rooted within the themes of realism, only adding to the discomfort and unpredictability of the story.
Credit again must go to Granik for the simplicity in which the characters are shown. The small town mentality, the worsening poverty and the undercurrent of raw human emotion is brought together seamlessly. Despite the desolate nature of the Missouri mountains there is an element of claustrophobia present. The inability to escape the cards you have been dealt, and the pursuit of protecting what little you have. This is achieved without sneering or pandering to stereotypes of redneck hillbillies, many of these individuals are kind-hearted and intelligent people brought down by their surroundings.
I’m unsure if it is as realistic as it is perhaps shown, there are several coincidences and certain events that just make me question if anything like this could ever take place. I find it best not to question this though when a film is this good. A certain amount of artistic licence is allowed, and although it’s bleakly unforgiving, the positivity and determination in Ree’s character leaves a warmth within this harsh winter tale.