Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old Ozark Mountain girl who is the materfamilias of her mentally ill mother and her younger brother and sister. Her drug-dealing father has mortgaged their house to raise bail and has skipped the bail. Ree is informed by the bail bondsman, Satterfield (Tate Taylor), that unless she can find him, or prove he’s dead, she’ll lose the house and all the property in a week. This causes her to traverse dangerous social terrain as she looks for her father while trying to keep her family intact.
Directed by Debra Granik, adapted by screenwriters Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, this is a rough thriller as we follow the indomitable Ree as she confronts dangerous, violent people while trying to locate her father. Despite constant threats and setbacks, she relentlessly pursues. Danger lurks in every confrontation. While there is violence, it all occurs offscreen and is left to the viewer’s imagination.
It is a realistic exposition of what life is probably like in the mountains of Missouri. Lawrence, playing a 17-year-old, was a teenager herself when the film was shot. She gives an award-quality performance as she appears in almost every scene, stealing scenes from more mature and seasoned performers. That’s not to say that the supporting performances aren’t praiseworthy also, however. They are so realistic that it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were locals who filled in the key roles. That’s not the way it was, though. Standing out is Dale Dickey as Merab, the wife of the family’s godfather, a strong woman standing in Ree’s way. John Hawkes, as Teardrop, Ree’s drug-addled uncle, gives a riveting performance, as does William White in a very short appearance as the family’s godfather. Finally, Tate Taylor is memorable in his short appearance as the sympathetic bail bondsman.
While Woodrell was raised in the Ozarks and Granik wasn’t, Granik displays a deft touch here in presenting the hardscrabble, ramshackle mountain life. She’s helped immeasurably by the gritty cinematography of Michael McDonough. This looks and feels almost like a documentary.
If you like movies that are well-crafted, well-directed movies that rely on script, acting, cinematography, and editing, (as opposed to comic book characters, special effects, gratuitous violence, and vulgarity) this is one not to miss. If this film is any indication, Granik’s talent appears limitless.