When an unknown actor delivers a jaw-dropping performance in a lead role, it's thrilling to watch. Jodie Foster pulled it off in "Taxi Driver," as did Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry." Jennifer Lawrence manages to catapult herself to that lofty status in the new film, "Winter's Bone."
Set in the bleak hollers of Missouri's Ozark Mountains, the film opens with the disappearance of 17-year-old Ree Dolly's (Lawrence) father. The local sheriff informs Ree that her meth-cooking, deadbeat dad put the family's house up as bond and skipped bail. If he's not located within a week, their home will be repossessed.
Ree is the glue that holds her destitute family together. Her two young siblings and mentally ill mother completely rely upon her for sustenance. Squirrel for dinner is a feast; cash is non-existent. Forced to find her father — dead or alive — she must seek out drug-trafficking kin for information. She quickly discovers that they would just as soon kill her than help.
Director Debra Granik ("Down to the Bone") never resorts to cliché in "Winter's Bone." Rather than play the dumb hillbilly card, she exposes a ruthless crime culture with blood ties that rival those in "The Godfather." It's a sophisticated thriller full of amazingly real characters. Many of the actors are unrecognizable simply due to the fact they've never acted before. Faces you may have seen in other films are chin-scratchers. John Hawkes ("The Perfect Storm"), Dale Dickey ("Take") and Sheryl Lee (TV's "Twin Peaks") are so perfectly cast — expect to remember their names in the future.
One name you'll never forget after viewing this powerful film will be that of Jennifer Lawrence. Her fearless, seemingly effortless performance as a young girl doing whatever it takes to keep her family together is beyond riveting. She gets under your skin and you want to keep her there.
"Winter's Bone" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year for director Debra Granik. If the Academy gets it right next year, Jennifer Lawrence should be walking home with Mr. Oscar.
— Pam Nadon