Movies that win the top prize at Sundance tend to be a mixed bag, mostly because festival juries have an unfortunate tendency to reward worthiness rather than audacity. At first glance, this year’s champ, Winter’s Bone, looks like more of the same: Set in the Ozarks, it’s about a desperately poor young woman, Ree Dolly (newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), who’s in danger of losing the ramshackle house in which she cares for her two much younger siblings, because her meth-cooking dad has jumped bail after putting the place up for his collateral. Against all odds, however, this turns out to be the most electrifying movie of the year—a nearly nonstop procession of encounters so tense that you find yourself massaging aching muscles after each one. In order to find her father, or at least figure out what’s happened to him, Ree must plead for help from her extended family in the holler, well aware that it’s a world in which questions of any kind are looked upon with deep suspicion at best and brutal hostility at worst.
In effect, Ree becomes a sort of detective, albeit of an unusually hard-boiled kind. (“Do we eat this part?” asks her kid brother about a squirrel’s gutted intestines. “Not yet,” she replies.) The film was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell and features the rich, stylized dialogue of first-rate fiction, but director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) otherwise wholly disguises its literary origins, establishing a dogged yet otherworldly atmosphere in the opening titles and then sustaining that tricky mood right through the poignant final shot. The amalgam of uninflected naturalism (visual) and bold stylization (verbal) turns the Ozarks into a science-fiction landscape, artfully blending the familiar, the esoteric (for those of us in major urban areas) and the flat-out bizarre. And holding it all together is Lawrence, who turns in a performance so steely and yet so heartbreaking that maintaining an intellectual distance soon becomes impossible. For the moment at least, Winter’s Bone is the best film of the year.