Mountain folk tale
Outlaw Ozark subculture is the setting for a new American classic
This extraordinary little backwoods drama kinda sneaks up on you from the side. The bleak-sounding title and the homely looking setting are perfectly in keeping with the cluttered everyday realities from which its curiously entangled tale emerges, but they give you no reason—in the early going, at least—to anticipate either the quirky heroism or the twists of tragic nobility that will eventually drift into view.
The unassuming nature of the thing is, however, part of its rough charm and, eventually, of its modest, earthy wisdom as well. And that’s particularly true with its youthful and uncommonly resolute heroine, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence).
Ree is a 17-year-old who has been left in charge of her family household—two younger siblings and a semi-catatonic mother—in a run-down, clannish enclave somewhere in the Ozarks. She’s thinking about enlisting in the Army and getting free of it all, but she also exhibits an extraordinary sense of responsibility to her family.
Her absent father, a fugitive from justice with multiple convictions for cooking meth, has put up the family property as bail after his latest arrest. When he disappears on the eve of his court date, he leaves his family on the brink of homelessness, and it falls to Ree to see if she can track him down and avert the calamity that threatens their family.
The mystery of the father’s whereabouts is the central narrative thread, but the film’s most striking dramatic tensions come from Ree’s interactions with assorted relatives and neighbors as she pursues her increasingly complicated quest. Ree and her family are part of an outlaw subculture that has a stringently patriarchal code of honor, and her bold attempts to find her father put her at odds not only with the haughtily remote patriarchs themselves but also with the women who serve as intermediaries between them and the rest of the family.
Lawrence brings an understated conviction to Ree’s mixture of scrappy resourcefulness and raw innocence. John Hawkes is starkly unsentimental as her deeply conflicted Uncle Teardrop, who is both obstacle and aide in Ree’s quest, and Dale Dickey is superb as Merab, wife of the clan’s most imposing and unreachable patriarch—she, too, is both obstacle and aide to Ree, with the added paradox of being the prime example of the clan’s women, several of whom give obeisance to the patriarchy while also gesturing, usually rather sketchily, toward a somewhat more sisterly code of honor.
Garret Dillahunt is very good with another figure of understated irony, Sheriff Baskin, who is ostensibly one of the clan’s nemeses. But—like the bail-bondsman Satterfield (Tate Taylor)—he’s trying to live by several codes of law all at once.
Director Debra Granik and producer Anne Rosellini co-wrote the screenplay adaptation of the novel by Daniel Woodrell.
Woodrell, who also wrote the novel from which Ang Lee’s post-Civil War western Ride With the Devil was drawn, seems an Ozark-based cross between Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard. Granik’s smart, laconic direction and Michael McDonough’s moody-gray cinematography do full justice to that flavorsome blend.