In a rural community of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, two children, Sonny and Ashlee Dolly, jump on a trampoline and play in front of a small, homespun cabin while their older sister, Ree, hangs laundry. In the morning, Ree prepares a meager breakfast for her siblings and combs the hair of her vacuous mother, Connie. Walking the kids to school, she quizzes them in spelling and math. As she passes through the school hallways, Ree observes a parenting class and a group of Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) kids marching with rifles. Later, Ree brings her horse to her neighbor, Sonya, and, after admitting that she does not have the money to feed it, Sonya agrees to take it in. As Ree chops wood, Sherriff Baskin arrives at the Dolly home. Realizing Connie is nearly catatonic, Baskin informs Ree that her father, Jessup, placed their home as collateral for a bond when he was arrested for cooking methamphetamines. Learning that his failure to appear in court in one week will cause the family to lose their home, Ree assures Baskin that she will find Jessup. Sonny suggests that they ask their neighbors for some of the deer they recently skinned, but Ree tells him to “never ask for what oughta be offered.” Later, Sonya brings the Dolly family a box of food and inquires about Baskin’s visit, making sure Ree did not give any information on Jessup’s whereabouts. Ree begins her quest for Jessup by visiting her friend and teenage mother, Gail, but her request to borrow her husband’s truck is denied. She then goes to her uncle, Teardrop, who tells her it’s Jessup’s choice whether or not he shows up in court. While menacingly loading a handgun cartridge, Teardrop cautions Ree against looking further or inquiring among his associates in the Meth-cooking trade. When she reminds him Jessup is his brother, Teardrop lashes out and grabs Ree’s throat. He then disappears, but his wife, Victoria, procures a small stash of cash for Ree before she leaves. Despite the warning, Ree proceeds to the home of Little Arthur, who tells her he hasn’t seen Jessup. Megan, another member of the Meth-cooking lineage, takes pity on Ree and advises her to see her grandfather, Thump Milton, who is the patriarch of the tribe. Ree continues despite her admission that Thump scares her most of all. Outside the Milton house, Ree encounters Thump’s wife, Merab, who tells her she’s come to the wrong place, but then motions her forward when Ree appeals that she’s Jessup’s daughter and they have the same blood. Merab inquires if Ree has men who can take on this task and when she says she doesn’t, she instructs Ree to wait. Upon returning, Merab tells Ree that Thump won’t speak to her because he doesn’t want witnesses and becomes enraged by Ree’s persistence. Back at home Ree is abducted by her neighbor, and distant cousin, Blond Milton, who takes her to a burned out Meth lab, claiming Jessup was killed there in the blow out. Knowing her father was famous for accuracy, Ree remains unconvinced. When Blond brazenly suggests he and Sonya adopt Sonny, Ree becomes furious, telling him the tall weeds growing at the site where Jessup was purportedly killed recently proves the story is a lie. Later, as Ree instructs Sonny and Ashlee to shoot, Gail shows up with keys to the truck. When Ree and Gail arrive at the home of April, Jessup’s former lover, the living room is bustling with a folk band and card games. April relates the last time she saw Jessup he was with three strangers and he looked through her, indicating something was terribly wrong. Back at home, Ree hunts squirrels with her siblings and teaches them how to skin them. As she loads a wood splitter, Teardrop arrives unannounced and says Jessup’s car was discovered, empty and burned out by a lake. Ree concludes her father is gone for good. Giving her money, Teardrop advises Ree to sell the homestead before the bondsmen claim it because Jessup failed to show up in court. When she refuses, Teardrop snorts meth and becomes angry when she shows no interest in taking drugs. On a walk in the woods, Ree begs her mother for advice, but is left without response. When the bondsman arrives, she tells him Jessup is dead. She learns the property value was not enough for the bond and a man paid the balance for Jessup’s release in cash. The bondsman gives her a week to prove Jessup is dead. Prompted by this new information, Ree tracks Thump down at a livestock auction and follows him home, where Merab throws coffee in her face and a gang of women beat her in the barn. When she comes to, Merab questions why she didn’t listen to her warning and Megan asks what they should do with her. Ree suggests they kill her, but Megan says that it has already been considered. Ree then proposes that they help her, but Megan says that they already tried by giving her warning. Thump grants Ree a chance to speak her mind, and she says that she can’t continue supporting the family, particularly if they become homeless. Teardrop appears as the barn door rises, announcing Ree is not responsible for her father’s sins and that he is taking her home. He vows to stand for her and make sure that she keeps quiet. On the ride home, Teardrop explains that Jessup didn’t want to go back to jail so he became an informant to Baskin, and this resulted in his murder. He elusively warns Ree to never tell him who killed Jessup. Back at home, Gail tends to Ree’s wounds and Sonya brings her painkillers. As Ree falls asleep, she asks Gail to make sure the kids have done their homework. The next day, Ree meets with an Army recruiter, inquiring about the $40,000 compensation for signing up, but after hearing her story he encourages her to stay home. In the middle of the night, Teardrop wakes Ree and takes her to a bar, anxious to resolve what happened to Jessup. A group of men threaten him, but Teardrop smashes their truck’s windshield with an axe. On the way home, Ree and Teardrop unsuccessfully search a cemetery for a fresh grave, and then get pulled over by Baskin. Refusing to get out of the truck while ominously cradling a rifle, Teardrop commands Baskin to divulge why he exposed Jessup and got him killed, causing Baskin to retreat. Some time later, Ree defensively greets a visit from Merab, who tells her she has come to “take you to your Daddy’s bones” in order to prevent further talk about their clan in the community. With a burlap sack over her head, Ree is taken at twilight to a location she’s told to forget. After paddling a boat across a murky lake, Merab tells Ree to reach down into the water to grab her father’s body. Merab instructs her to use a chainsaw and cut off her father’s hand, but despite her assurance that Jessup would want this Ree is incapable. Merab then saws the hand off herself as Ree holds on, sobbing. When she releases Jessup’s body after the hand is removed, Merab scolds her, saying that they need both hands, and Ree reaches back down in the water to repeat the procedure. Merab covers Ree’s shoulders with her coat when they are done. The next day, Ree delivers the hands to Baskin, telling him they were thrown on the porch the night before. Before she leaves, Baskin mentions that the only reason he didn’t shoot Teardrop during their face off was because she was there, and he does not want stories spread to the contrary about him backing away. Ree coldly assures Baskin that she does not talk about him. Later, as Teardrop presents Sonny and Ashlee with two baby chicks, the bondsman shows up at the Dolly home. He hands Ree the cash deposited for Jessup’s bail, convinced that it would not be reclaimed due to the circumstances of his murder. Sonny and Ashlee give Teardrop Jessup’s banjo, and he plays it despite his claim that he is not as good as his brother. He then turns to Ree and admits to his knowledge of Jessup’s killer, saying simply “I know who.” She offers the banjo to Teardrop as he leaves, but he tells her to keep it for him. Ree sits on the porch with her siblings, saying that she would be lost without them and promising never to leave.