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eventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) looks after her mentally ill mother, her twelve-year-old brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and her six-year-old sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Every day, Ree makes sure her siblings eat, while teaching them basic survival skills like hunting and cooking. The family is destitute. Ree's father, Jessup, has not been home for a long time; his whereabouts are unknown. He is out on bail following an arrest for manufacturing "crank".
Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) tells Ree that, if her father does not show up for his court date, they will lose the house because it was put up as part of his bond. Ree sets out to find her father, following his trail into the world where meth use is common, violence is frequent, and people are bound by codes of loyalty and secrecy. She starts with her meth-addicted uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and continues on to more distant kin, eventually trying to talk to the local crime boss, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall). Milton refuses to see her; the only information Ree comes up with are warnings to leave the situation alone and stories that Jessup died in a meth lab fire or skipped town to avoid the trial.
When Jessup fails to appear for the trial, the bondsman (Tate Taylor) comes looking for him and tells Ree that she will have about a week before the house, and land are seized. Ree tells him that Jessup must be dead, because "Dollys don't run". He tells her that she will need to provide proof that her father is dead to avoid the bond being forfeited.
Ree tries to go to see Milton again and is severely beaten by the women of his family. Teardrop shows up and rescues Ree, promising her attackers that she will not say anything or cause any more trouble. Teardrop tells Ree that her father was killed because he was going to inform on other meth cookers, but he does not know who killed him; he warns her that if she ever finds out who did, she must not tell him because he would kill that person.
A few nights later, the same three Milton women who beat Ree come to her house. They offer to take her to "[her] daddy's bones". The women place a burlap sack on her head and drive her to a pond, where they get into a rowboat and row to the shallow area where her father's submerged body lies. They tell Ree to reach into the freezing water and grasp her father's hands so they can cut them off with a chainsaw; the severed, decaying arms will serve as proof of death for the authorities. Ree takes the hands to the sheriff, telling him that someone flung them onto the porch of her house.
The bondsman comes back to the house and gives Ree the cash portion of the bond, which was put up by an anonymous associate of Jessup. Ree tries to give Jessup's banjo to Teardrop, but he tells her to keep it at the house for him. As he is leaving, he tells her that he now knows who killed her father. Ree reassures Sonny and Ashlee that she will not ever leave them, regardless of the money she just received.