Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is a full-body immersion in a scarcely depicted place and way of life: the “backlands” of Missouri’s Ozark mountains. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, defacto breadwinner for her family whose home is at stake after her father jumps bail and disappears. Lauded by critics for its scrupulous realism, Granik’s film is an indispensable antidote to the easy stereotypes that so often mire depictions of rural America.

Broken families, drug addiction, economic desperation, Winter’s Bone’s subject matter would lure many a director towards brash melodrama. Not so for Granik who, as Peter Bradshaw observes in the Guardian, maintains a measured honesty in her approach:

Granik tells her story not as a thriller, but a naturalistic drama, in which the thrills are the more potent for being unexpected, and she uses keening country music to underscore the stoicism and melancholy of this brutal, amoral world.

Roger Ebert similarly singles out Granik’s ability to complicate what is too-often reduced to stereotype, praising her film for its nuanced depiction of rural America:

Unmistakably filmed on location, this film focuses on a society that has been left behind. It looks like Walker Evans' photographs of the rural Depression, brought forward to today … There is a hazard of caricature here. Granik avoids it. Her film doesn't live above these people, but among them.

In the Irish Times, Donald Clarke concurs, arguing that the film:

never drifts into melodrama, and never seems patronising towards its chosen milieu. Every sprocket hole appears coated with genuine Missouri grit.

Granik approaches these grim realities with care, offering an honest portrayal of bleakness without descending into poverty porn. Writing in Rolling Stone, Peter Travers argues that:

Granik handles this volatile, borderline horrific material with unblinking ferocity and feeling.

Often this means letting her subject matter remain obscure. As David Denby notes in the New Yorker, the thrust of Granik’s film comes in scenes left unexplained and unresolved:

Granik … creates an aura of violence through suggestion, half-finished sentences, or a threatening or sorrowful look; she envelops us in mysteries that can never quite be solved.

But the fog of mystery is never suffocating, and Granik resists indulging in murder-mystery tropes. At AV Club, Keith Phipps writes on the ways Granik’s film exceeds its “country noir” tagline:

Granik has no taste for noir archness, opting for a chilly, shot-on-decaying-locations naturalism.

Rather, Georgie Hobbs writes in Little White Lies, Granik follows the lead of her film’s singular location, trusting visceral sensory details to fill the gaps left by her stoic approach to narrative:

Granik’s nuanced attention to detail morphs this simple whodunnit into a dark and brooding drama. She lets local language and scenery run riot, spinning an old-fashioned quest into something more. We get close-ups of woodland, a matter-of-fact look at the insides of a freshly shot squirrel (dinner for Ree and the kids), and a peek inside an insular party of wrinkled Ozarks crooning bittersweet folksongs.

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