This wonderful film is held together by a mesmerising central performance from Jennifer Lawrence and immaculate direction by Debra Granik.
The story is well-known by now. Lawrence as Ree Dolly is the seventeen-year old who holds her family together. Her mother is a catatonic depressive, and Ree has two younger siblings, Sonny, her twelve-year old brother and Ashlee, her eight year old sister. It is a mark of their lives that these children seem considerably younger than the ages they are given in the film. Ree’s father, Jessop, has jumped bail and given the family house and land as a bond. Ree is confronted by the need to find her father or face the loss of the only thing that the family has, its home. That quest is met either by silence or violence, or both.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly as a teenager of profound maturity, who levels her gaze at any one and any thing. Her unflinching search takes her into the darkest recesses of a community whose sense of identity is shown in jaw-clenching loyalty amidst real poverty. That search is driven by her palpable love for her family; out of which she teaches her siblings the necessary skills for survival including using a double-barrel shotgun to fell intruders and a hunting rifle to shoot deer and squirrels for the pot. She also shows them how to skin and clean those squirrels, much to Sonny’s real disgust. Ree also teaches them a survivalist’s manners. When Sonny sees the family next door cleaning the carcass of a deer, he asks Ree if they could ask them for some meat. “How many times have I told you, ‘Never ask for anything that might be offered.’”
Debra Granik’s camera is obviously in love with Lawrence’s Ree. But her control of all her actors produces deeply moving performances from all of them, in particular, John Hawkes who plays Ree’s dissolute uncle, Teardrop, and who eventually comes to her rescue. Granik has recreated a world where purpose has been narrowed to the next high and the violence that accompanies it. The women are haggard and capable of their own levels of violence. The men brew ‘crank’ and hang around country music bars. But the landscape and the shack life of the community is lovingly filmed. And there are some beautiful frames; winter can seldom have been better evoked than in the shot of the icicles dangling from the feet of a rocking horse.
Menace and Ree’s response to it exudes from this film which grips from the very first moment. And it is this grip that stops this film from being unremittingly bleak. There is some small redemption at the end of the film. But this film is a real ‘must-see’; with a sense of completion that is energising rather than smugly satisfying.