The story is something out of a 'noir' story: a 17 year old girl (Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout performance) is told by the local Sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt, who previously played 'the law' in No Country for Old Men) that her father is wanted, but also put up the house and assets for collateral, and that if he doesn't show- in one way or another, live or dead- the house will be taken away. Ree's mother is in a daze on medication, and she has two little siblings she has to take care of, so starts a search for her father. Nobody wants to help her really; her most sympathetic ally is her uncle, who doesn't know where his brother is, and doesn't much care (there's a great exchange at one point between the two: "You know, you've always scared me." "That's because you're smart," he says, eyes turned down), but everyone else is abrasive, and could at best care less and at worse tell her to get off the property... or else.
There's a pervading feeling of something really, really bad going on, which Ree can only slightly comprehend. She is smart, and resourceful, and teaches her little brother and sister to shoot, if nothing else for protection (that's the subtext anyway in shooting squirrels), but she's also not wanted, certainly not by the locals who she should count on but look at her, as Jessup Dolly's daughter, as a threat. More is revealed about what happened to him, and the sense of terror is really way up by the third act. Who knows what will happen to Ree or the kids, especially if Jessup isn't found, in one way or another. The discovery of Jessup, as the climax of the picture, is filmed in such a way that it is truly gruesome; I can't reveal it here, but it outranks most horror movies that only come close to the personal terror that is felt by the discovery.
Winter's Bone is bleak but not so much so that we leave the theater in all tears or total dread. There's some little moments of hope for Ruby and her siblings, and while her conflict with Thump Milton and his clan (aka Redneck Mob) leaves her scarred and more on her guard, and she knows to definitely never trust that Sheriff again, what makes it worthwhile is surviving the quest of it, the mystery. Nothing feels fabricated in the film- many of the actors come right from the region and are non-professionals- and this is reflected in the material. And for such a hard story, of a girl on her own with little resources and backup, there's some great talent here. Lawrence, as noted, should become very hot (that is a talent-to-see on the radar) from this film, where her Ree is the hero in more ways than one, but from her strength shows her vulnerability from time to time very well (there's a scene where she brings her mother out into the woods to ask her what she should do, tears in her eyes, and I couldn't recall a scene quite as powerful as it since Nicholson's Bobby Dupea had a similar scene in Five Easy Pieces).
The other actor who really shines here is John Hawkes. We've seen him in character parts from time to time (I first saw him in From Dusk till Dawn as a store clerk), and his character is given the most complexity of anyone. While it's arguable that Ree and the other backwoods folk are black-and-white in their morality (even when a woman character finally comes to help Ree in the third act it's by a lot of conditions- the aforementioned 'gruesome' scene), Teardrop is an unabashed drug addict and will most likely kill if he has to. But he's also compassionate in ways that matter, and Hawkes shows this gray area of the character with depth and wisdom; he doesn't make this guy a total hick (matter of fact no one in the movie is too over-the-top, just believable enough without being like 'Deliverance), but a torn man who has no real future but can be of help to Ree in this time of need. And he also gets an exceptional showdown scene with the Sheriff while in the front seat of his car that is among the best scenes this year in film.
This is the indie film that people love to talk about, the 'go see this' wonder that will probably barely play 100 or at most 200 screens, but lights up with drama and consequence more than most films you'll ever see. Or, to put it another way, it's what Sundance is good for: shining light on real independent product that is about something, or someone, and isn't tethered by Hollywood conventions.