Want a hell of a jolt? Watch Holly Hunter in the rage-filled drama ''Thirteen,'' then go see her in person. Enter the posh Manhattan hotel with those images still kicking you in the head: Hunter as hairdresser Melanie, mom to sweet tween Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), who hits Shakespearean lows when she takes up with rotten-wild Evie (Nikki Reed). The bewilderment, shock, and falling-from-the-sky impotence that Hunter exudes as she watches her daughter self-destruct sits on you like a mean fog as the actress streaks in. Small frame encased in black pinstripes, honeyed hair flowing in disciplined rivulets, Hunter, 45, fixes you with steady, sharp eyes. She smacks of competence and capability. Visions of Melanie are wiped clean. And then you think: Oh, right...acting.
Hunter's been pulling off such transformations since 1987, when she gave audiences an ice-water wake-up call with bumptious, bracing turns in ''Raising Arizona'' and ''Broadcast News.'' The latter gave the actress her first Oscar nomination; in 1993 she played a mute, defiant bride in ''The Piano'' and won the thing (she was nominated the same year for her supporting turn in ''The Firm'' -- making her one of the few actors ever to earn twin nods). After that, Hunter worked steadily in films like ''Home for the Holidays,'' ''A Life Less Ordinary,'' ''Crash,'' and ''Moonlight Mile'' -- movies that never quite rose to the occasion.
Then came ''Thirteen,'' which swept Sundance in January (Fox Searchlight bought it for almost $2 million) and shone precociously in its first month of release: It has pulled in $2.7 million so far. And Oscar talk has ignited again around Hunter's acting coup: As the imperfect former alcoholic Melanie, Hunter mystifyingly maintains the audience's empathy. ''She could have been contemptible,'' says Hunter. ''But I felt that she was a broken savior. Her brokenness is so human and so relaxed.''
Looking back, director Catherine Hardwicke (who cowrote the film with Reed, based on the girl's junior-high troubles) says she was foolish to hope she'd snag Hunter. ''On paper, this looked like a bad deal for Holly,'' Hardwicke admits. ''I'm a first-time director, she's not even the star, it's going to be an R-rated teenage movie, and we didn't even know if it would be released. There was nothing good about it.''
But Hunter was taken by the screenplay -- ''it's a broad stroke of color'' -- and after Hardwicke fleshed out the Melanie-Tracy-Evie triangle, she signed on. ''The thing that touches me about great novels is the feeling of inevitability,'' says Hunter. ''And the script had that. This is going down the drain.'' Before the quickie 24-day shoot last summer, the actress suggested a sleepover with Wood and Reed in the L.A. home in which ''Thirteen'' was filmed. ''We all dressed up and they put makeup on me and we stayed up really late,'' says Hunter. ''It was nice to declare the house ours, and we kind of belonged to each other after that.''
Hunter's dedication to the decidedly less traveled path can occasionally veer into commercial dead ends -- witness 2001's ''Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her'' and this year's ''Levity,'' both of which sank quickly to Blockbuster. ''I can take on projects that I think are provocative for me, work hard on them and work fruitfully -- but then somehow the life force gets shut down,'' she says. ''That's why 'Thirteen' was so rewarding. It's a shock to me to be in a movie that catches, because so often they just don't. It's so fulfilling -- and surprising.'' Who knew ''Thirteen'' could be this lucky?