"Never ask for what ought to be offered," seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tells her brother in Winter's Bone, Debra Granik's dark and flinty Ozark fairy tale. Those are words to live by for Ree and her people, scattered across the hardscrabble southern Missouri woods. But in Winter's Bone, a tough-minded girl is forced by circumstance to demand exactly what no one wants to offer: the truth. Ree lives in a small house with her siblings and their mentally ill mother. When the sheriff brings news that Ree's father put the family's house up as bond after an arrest for cooking meth -- and that he has subsequently gone on the run -- Ree goes looking for Dad to convince him to turn himself in. Met at every turn by narrowed eyes and tight lips, Ree soon gets the picture that asking questions is, as one neighbor puts it, "a real good way to end up et by hogs."
But while the first half of Winter's Bone is essentially a slow-paced procedural with a pint-sized detective, Ree is no Nancy Drew. She gets by on instinct and determination rather than wit, and we come out the other end of her quest impressed, but also disquieted, by her strength. It's uncertain to what end that strength might be used. Ree is tough enough, and mean enough, to rule those woods in a few short years if she sets her mind to it.