Bleak realism key to power of ‘Winter’s Bone’
Writer-director Debra Granik may not be a well-known name, but the buzz bolstering her third and latest film, the critically acclaimed and Sundance award-winning Winter’s Bone, should start to change that. A bleak but beautiful art-house flick, it’s been almost universally lauded as the best film of 2010 thus far — an impressive feat considering it features a cast mostly made up of unknowns and locals from the Ozarks in Missouri, and tackles the subject of backwoods methamphetamine manufacturing and addiction.
Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, Winter’s Bone (opening Friday, June 25) exposes the ravaging effects drugs can have in rural areas, particularly as it becomes virtually impossible to eke out a living from the land alone.
“Surface economies are living in what would be categorically poverty, because it’s not a sustainable way of earning money,” Granik says, over the phone from New York City. “It’s too little, too slow, and variable; it evaporates and closes up and under-employs people... But it always shocks me... trying to be involved or make money from drugs. It’s so unglamorous. It’s weird that so many films have glamorous depictions.”
There’s nothing glamorous about Winter’s Bone. Filmed on location, Granik fully captures the Ozarks’ isolation and rustic beauty, rendered by careful camera work and a lingering, interested eye. It also showcases, without judgment, the barbed-wire loyalty and tension that exists in communities built on survival-by-any-means.
The character of 17-year-old Ree, who is Bone’s beating heart, epitomizes that survival instinct. Already tasked with raising her young brother and sister, and caring for her mentally ill mother, Ree discovers her father has skipped out on his bail — and put their house and land up as his bond. With his court date fast approaching, Ree has to go knocking on some very dark doors to try to get to the bottom of his disappearance and save the family home.
Jennifer Lawrence, the relatively unknown 19-year-old Kentuckian who skillfully portrays Ree, is as frank and direct as the character she plays. She refuses to consider the assertion that her performance anchors the film (because she’s “not a butthead”), but admits that the accolades — and subsequent work offers — pouring in are gratifying, particularly since she considers having played Ree an opportunity to connect with traits she admires in real life. “I like that she doesn’t take no for an answer, and I like that she doesn’t consider failure,” Lawrence says. “I really respect people like that.”
Ree’s strength was also part of what drew Granik to the project. “It’s a good feeling to see a female on screen and be able to root for them and feel like they’re competent, that they’ve got resources and they’re going to use them in different ways,” she says.
Granik was also interested in turning the “so-called coming-of-age story” on its head. “It’s very class driven, how you come of age — like Charles Dickens depicting scrappy kids in London, and it didn’t matter what their education was because they were always learning, either from the streets or elders. You don’t always get a chance to choose who you learn from either. You may learn from criminals, but you don’t have to be one.”
It might be this kind of thoughtfulness Lawrence refers to when she talks about Granik’s attention to detail during filming, from focusing the cinematographer on an icicle melting to depicting the actual skinning and eating of a squirrel. “She’s tremendous,” Lawrence says. “She’s very emotionally accessible. She asks a lot of questions, which is rare for a director, unfortunately.”
Which isn’t to say shooting went off without any hitches. Lawrence admits Granik’s process was occasionally unfathomable. “She has an artistic eye that I have to admit was hard to understand when we were filming, but when I saw the movie I was blown away,” she says. “I remember some of the things she thought were really important at the time [that] I just thought were annoying. Like, ‘Let’s just wrap! Who cares?’ But when I see it, I just think, can you imagine if she didn’t make me do that again? I don’t know if I’ve ever met anybody else who’s got a brain like her.”