An ice-blue cold seeps from almost every frame of this adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel. That book told a snowbound story, but a US$2 million budget doesn't buy you a winter shoot in the Missouri Ozarks, which are prone to ice storms.
Still, the film's director of photography, Michael Mcdonough, has created an admirably wintry landscape of bare earth and denuded trees, through which strides Ree Dolly (Lawrence), the 17-year-old thrust into the role of mother to her two young siblings.
Their real mum is present in body only, withdrawn into a nameless private hell, and their dad, Jessop, is nowhere to be found, having skipped bail on drugs charges.
That's doubly problematic for Ree because Jessop put up their shack and land as bond. Ree has a week to find him or lose everything.
Woodrell's book, told in rich, dense and almost archaic prose, had the whiff of myth about it and Granik's film nails that. It's a raw and elemental story - a young woman risks all on a quest where the odds are stacked against her - that is deeply satisfying both as allegory and as specific, highly charged drama.
The script makes great use of Woodrell's elliptical dialogue. When Ree turns up at one house, the unwelcoming greeting is "You got the wrong place, I expect" and the response to her request to talk is that "Talkin' just causes witnesses".
The sense of menace is almost palpable, but it's all implicit: when Ree is beaten - by improbable assailants - the worst of it happens off-screen. And her next pair of lines distills the essence of the ferocious courage that makes a scruffy kid one of the most charismatic lead characters of this or any other year.
Lawrence's patient and watchful performance, the film's beating heart, is almost beyond praise - if there's any justice it will be celebrated on Oscar night - but Granik surrounds her with a great cast of professionals and non-actors.
Hawkes, Jessop's brother but not Ree's friend, and Dickey as the hardbitten Merab, both the lock and the key to Ree's quest, are just terrific but there are unstudied performances too, such as the one from a real army recruitment officer who interviews a desperate Ree.
In the music and in scene settings - a meat market, a squirrel-skinning - the film moves close to ethnography, but it never loses sight of its main identity: a gripping and very rewarding thriller and certainly one of the highlights of the year. Don't miss it.
Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
R13 (violence, drug use, offensive language)