Deep in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, Ree Dolly and her family live in an old house on the edge of a sprawling timberwood. Though they have fallen on hard times and food and comfort alike are scarce, Ree takes dutiful care of her two younger brothers, Harold and Sunny, and her mother, Connie, who is “medicated and lost to the present.” One morning, amidst heavy snow, a deputy from the sheriff’s department—Baskin—arrives at Ree’s house to inform her that her father, Jessup—a “half-famous crank chef” is missing just a week ahead of his upcoming court date. Baskin tells Ree that her father has put the house and timber acres up for his bond, and that unless he turns up in time for his arraignment, Ree and her family will lose both their house and their property. Ree assures the deputy that she will find her father.
Ree decides to start her search by going to her uncle Teardrop, also a crank chef, “though he scare[s] her.” He and his wife Victoria live just a few miles away, and Ree visits them and expresses her dire need to “run [her father] to ground.” Teardrop tells Ree that it’s Jessup’s choice whether or not to show up, and advises her to stop her search. When Ree presses him further, he grabs her by the hair and shakes her, then retreats to his room. Victoria follows, and emerges with fifty dollars. She gives it to Ree, and warns her once again to stay close to home.
Ree visits her best friend, Gail Lockrum, who dropped out of high school and married a local boy named Floyd; together, Gail and Floyd have an infant son named Ned. Ree asks to use Gail’s husband’s truck in order to follow up on a lead—she needs to get to the Arkansas border to visit April, one of her father’s old girlfriends—but when Gail asks her husband, Floyd, for permission, he refuses.
The next day, Ree hitches her way to Hawkfall, a village where some of her distant relatives live. When she arrives, a young woman, Megan, emerges from one of the homes. Ree asks after Little Arthur, an acquaintance of her father’s. At Little Arthur’s, Ree asks after her father, and Arthur deflects, claiming that he hasn’t seen Jessup in nearly a year; Arthur flirts with Ree and offers her crank and weed. After she refuses, he tells her to leave. Megan tells Ree to go up the hill and talk to Thump Milton, who will surely know her father’s whereabouts, though Megan warns Ree that Thump Milton “scares” her, and that he may not even agree to talk. When Ree arrives at Thump Milton’s home, his wife Merab turns her away. Ree implores Merab to give her a chance, invoking their distant blood ties. Merab goes into the house, and, when she emerges again “after most of an hour,” tells Ree that Thump Milton refuses to see her. Ree, indignant, shouts loudly at Thump Milton from outside of the house. Merab sends her away with a warning not to return.
Ree returns home, where her cousin, Blond Milton, is waiting for her. Angered, he tells Ree that people throughout the Ozarks are talking about her, telling each other of her ill-advised hunt for Jessup. Blond Milton drives Ree to the ruined shell of an exploded meth lab, which he claims was Jessup’s last-known whereabouts. Ree notes that the meth lab is full of “chin-high” weeds, and thus a false lead.
At home, Ree teaches her brothers how to fire a shotgun, having realized that they may need to be able to defend themselves sooner than she’d imagined. While in the middle of a lesson, Gail shows up, her son in tow, revealing that she has obtained the keys to her in-laws’ truck. She offers to drive the two of them, plus the baby, down to the Arkansas border to visit April.
When the girls arrive at her home, April relays a story about Jessup that frightened her; though she doesn’t know his current whereabouts, she remembers having seeing him in a bar just a few months ago. He was in the company of a group of unsavory characters, April says, and he refused to recognize her in order to “protect” her.
On the drive home, Ree thinks that she sees her father’s car on the road; she implores Gail to follow it, but they lose sight of it.
The next day, Gail shows up at Ree’s house; her husband, upset that she stayed out so late, took their baby to his parents’ house and kicked Gail out. Ree takes Gail in, happy to have her.
Ree teaches her brothers to hunt and skin squirrels. The three of them and Gail eat heartily, and Ree falls asleep peacefully on the couch. She wakes to find Teardrop standing over her. He tells her that the authorities found Jessup’s burnt car earlier that morning, but that he wasn’t in it. Teardrop gives Ree some more money; Jessup was due in court earlier, and didn’t show. He advises Ree to sell off the timber acres while she still can, and offers her crank once again. She refuses, and he leaves.
Gail’s husband arrives with their baby and asks Gail to come home. Gail chooses to stay at Ree’s, and her husband leaves the baby with her.
The next day, a bondsman, Mike Satterfield, arrives at Ree’s home. Ree assures the bondsman that if her father missed his court date, he must be dead. The bondsman tells Ree that she has about thirty days left before her home and land is repossessed, and that there is nothing more she can do to reclaim them unless she can prove to the authorities that Jessup is dead.
Despite Gail’s warning not to, Ree returns to Hawkfall, to Thump Milton’s house. She knocks on the front door, and Merab and two other women emerge and begin to beat Ree mercilessly.
When Ree regains consciousness, she is being held in a barn, with many members of the Thump clan, including Megan, around her. Thump Milton approaches Ree, and she begs him for help in proving that her father is dead. Her words are met with silence. The sound of a truck pulling up the drive can be heard; it is, the bystanders say, Teardrop’s truck. The Thumps agree to release Ree to Teardrop as long as he agrees to “stand for her.” He does, and she is released to him.
On the drive home, Teardrop tells Ree that she “owns” him—if she continues to “do wrong, it’s on [him.]” Teardrop reveals that Jessup “turned snitch” after being caught in another bust. Jessup leaked information to the deputy Baskin about the Dolly clan’s rivals. Teardrop claims that he suspects one or two men in Jessup’s murder, but that he can’t ever know who—and he implores Ree to never let him know who is responsible for Jessup’s death, as “that’d just mean I’ll be toes-up myself soon,” he tells her.
Back at home, Gail and the women of Rathlin Valley tend to Ree’s horrific wounds and soothe her with the help of painkillers. Over the course of the next several days, Ree begins to recover, though she still frets endlessly about how to prove Jessup’s death and regain her claim on her home and her land. She tells Gail that she plans to bring her mother to a hospital and “leave her on the steps,” then “beg” Victoria and Teardrop to take her younger brother Harold in. Gail tells Ree that she needs to return home to her husband for the sake of her child’s safety and happiness. Ree offers to sell the timber acres to Gail and Floyd; “if I’ve got to sell these woods,” she tells her, “I’d want it to be you’n yours.”
Eventually the Thump women visit Ree, and tell her that they are going to “fix [her] problem for [her.]” Ree is angry and distrustful, but the Thump women point out that Ree has no better option, and no choice but to trust them. They “need to put a stop to [the] upset talk” they’ve heard spreading through the Ozarks, they say, and they tell Ree that they will take her to her father’s “bones.”
The Thump women drive Ree, with a bag over her head, to a frozen pond, bring her out into it in a small boat, and tell her to crack the ice, reach down, and find her father’s body. Merab tells Ree that she needs to saw off Jessup’s hands so that the law will know he is dead. The Thump women help Ree to sever Jessup’s hands, as Ree imagines that she is far away, “on a distant tranquil shore.”
Deputy Baskin is called, and he comes for the hands the next morning. Ree tells him that “somebody flung ‘em on the porch.” After Baskin departs, Ree tells her younger brothers that their father is dead, and the three of them start to clean out his shed. Teardrop arrives, and he offers to “scare up” some money for Ree. She tells him she “won’t touch crank,” but he tells her that there are other things she can do to earn money, if she’ll agree to do them. Satterfield, the bondsman, arrives, and Ree lets him in. He hands her a blue sack, “fat with crinkled bills,” and tells her that it belongs to her. He tells her that a man with no name posted what remained of Jessup’s bond in cash—the home and land was not enough. What’s left of the bail now belongs to Ree. Satterfield leaves, and Teardrop tells Ree that he knows now who is responsible for Jessup’s death. Ree embraces him, and he leaves. Harold and Sonny ask Ree if the money means she will “go away,” and she assures them that she won’t. They ask her what they’ll buy with the money, and Ree answers them definitively: “Wheels.”