True to its title, there's a mean country chill that runs through "Winter's Bone," an iciness that no heavy jacket can warm.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in a tough-as-leather breakout performance) is an Ozark mountain girl who once dreamed of joining the Army. But at age 17 her meth-cooking father has disappeared, and if he doesn't show up for a court appearance, her family -- a near-catatonic mother and two sweet younger siblings -- will lose its house and land.
Like it or not, Ree is in charge. And that doesn't mean she just has to feed the kids and do the laundry. Now she has to go find her father.
This, unfortunately, means seeking out the family's long line of outlaw relatives, starting with her dangerous uncle Teardrop (the always fine John Hawkes from "Me and You and Everyone We Know") and then moving on to even scarier territory.
Writer-director Debra Granik ("Down to the Bone") lays bare Ree's Ozark lifestyle, from the way she teaches her younger brother and sister how to skin and gut squirrels to a face-off with mean-faced mountain women that turns ugly.
As Ree, Lawrence charges through it all with a determination bred of desperation but obviously forged under fire. This is a girl who takes her responsibilities seriously, and she will not bend.
True to itself, "Winter's Bone" never softens, and neither does Ree, even when she breaks. As she stomps through the woods there's a purpose to her that brooks no moral philosophizing. Other people have choices; not Ree. And she can live with that.
The result is a film and a character of unusual strength. Pity Ree, question her decisions, wonder about her future. But the girl does not quit.