No blockbuster this summer has digitally produced a setting as otherworldly and foreboding as the natural one in “Winter's Bone,” set in the rural Ozark Mountains. In the movie, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) ekes out a subsistence living among the twisted old trees and scrub brush of her native country, a forgotten backwoods splintered by a drug economy, struggling to care for two young siblings and their mentally ill mother on a run-down farm neglected by her father, who's gone missing.
When the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) arrives to tell Ree that her father's recent bond includes the family home and land, the stalwart girl sets out to find him, pushing into a hornet's nest of suspicious and wary mountain folk agitated by her inquisitiveness. Is dad on the run, hiding, dead? If Ree doesn't find out within a week, the home is lost and the family will be thrown into the woods.
It's difficult to say whether the people in the Ozarks are fairly represented by the movie, but the depiction — dire and unsentimental — is convincing. The movie was directed by Debra Granik, who last helmed “Down to the Bone,” which also dealt with a mother figure beset by drug abuse. Ree is clean, but everyone around her seems knee-deep in vice, which may or may not be an accurate indictment of life there. To the movie's credit, Granik keeps its sympathies in check, refusing to demonize even if Ree never develops into more than an angelic heroine.
The movie has the look and feel of other recent indie dramas, such as “Wendy and Lucy,” which tells the story of a girl whose life unravels when her car breaks down. Bravely exhumed without the help of a score, “Winter's Bone,” is a much more plot-driven story, which hinges on the type of girl-in-trouble scenario even early silent filmmakers would have recognized. The movie's main attraction is its stars, rough-hewn character actors giving uniformly excellent performances, and the mountains themselves, which Granik captures in all their haunting sadness. (R) 100 min.