On the basis of past winners, a Sundance award should be regarded as much a red flag as an honor, but Granik’s throat-grabbing new film dispels any doubts within minutes. Set in the most impoverished of Ozark communities, Winter’s Bone follows Ree (Lawrence), a 17-year-old who cares for her younger siblings, as she’s forced into a harrowing search for her father. Arrested on drug charges, Dad posted their home as bond, then disappeared; if he doesn’t show up in court, the family will lose its property. But while Ree’s father was never a model parent, his desertion just might be evidence of a greater crime. And the menacing backwoods community—half of them relatives, most of them shotgun-wielding—seems intent on keeping mum.
The cast of villains might make Winter’s Bone sound like an exploitation or horror film—and indeed, the closest the movie comes to a heartwarming moment is when Ree teaches her siblings how to gut a squirrel. Generically, the film is closer to a Western: It convincingly portrays an almost lawless community governed by codes and rituals (which the movie is confident enough not to spell out in too much detail), and the drama pivots on the heroine’s refusal to fluster in the face of constant threats. But Bone’s chief accomplishment is to immerse viewers in a world that feels utterly authentic, even new, with every image and sound subtly calibrated for tension.