Set in the South, Lawrence's Ree Dolly is, at the age of seventeen, a strong woman who has put aside her personal desires to be the primary care giver of her younger brother and sister and her sick mother. Struggling through poverty to the point that she and her family must rely upon the kindness of their neighbours, Ree finds herself with a one week deadline to find her father, Jessup, when she is informed that if he doesn't appear for a court date, the State will take her home. Across a stark, yet strangely beautiful landscape, Ree walks from house to house to find members of her family, each of them connected in one way or another in the sale and production of meth, to find her father. Starting with her uncle Teardrop, who knows enough from the outset to warn her, she is met with silence or threats of violence and is forced to rely upon her own strength of character.
Up front, the biggest fault with the film is the narrative. Granik is unable to keep her narrative throughout the film smooth and seamless, and because of such, there are moments peppered throughout where Ree essentially stands around waiting for something to happen. The bond men arrive; her uncle arrives; her friend arrives; the neighbour arrives with food, and so on and so forth, and that gets a bit annoying at times. In a lesser film, indeed, it would be a larger problem--I would tell you that the pacing is all off, that the mystery doesn't work, and to an extent, this is quite true of Winter's Bone. The mystery around Jessup never truly amounts to much, outside the scenes where he is found, and the pacing is off, but fortunately for Granik, she has Lawrence and John Hawkes, as Teardrop, to carry the film through these parts.
Indeed, what struck me about the film was just how well defined the female characters were, and how absent--and at times destructively so--the male figures were in the film. Teardrop marks the only male character outside Ree's little brother to appear in the film, and with a barely restrained sense of violence about him, as well as habitual drug use, he is of very little use to Ree. That he should be, however, or that any of the male characters should fill that roll, is highlighted in the film by Ree's teaching of her little brother, and telling him not to be squeamish while gutting a squirrel or teaching him how to shoot. Indeed, you could argue that, in the absence of any strong male role model, Ree has become to occupy both positions in her family, and her interactions then with her brother and sister are interesting within that light.
Winter's Bone is by no means a film about gender, however. Any reading I can make about gender roles arise because Granik has allowed for Lawrence to flesh her character out fully upon screen, and her strength and her tenacity make her first and foremost a compelling character. There are themes of gender, of femininity and masculinity, but they unfold as the narrative of the film takes place, and serve to compliment the texture of the film as a whole, rather than to become what the film is about. At it's heart, Winter's Bone is not a film about gender, but rather a film about responsibility, about doing the hard thing when there is no one else there, about tenacity and force of will, and throughout it, Lawrence's Ree Dolly embodies that and more.