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The bleak world of 'Winter's Bone'

Director Debra Granik fights stereotypes in her indie movie, which is set in the Missouri Ozarks. She strives to capture the small-town environs, which are rich in folklore and distinctive language, with empathy and discernment.

June 10, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • "Winters Bone," which can be thought of as a Greek tragedy set in the Ozarks, stars John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence, and was directed and co-written by Debra Granik. (FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this caption misspelled John Hawkes' last name as Hamkes.)
"Winters Bone," which can be thought of as a Greek tragedy set… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Carrying firearms. Chopping wood for fuel. Eating deer stew for dinner. Gathering your kith and kin together for a folk-music jam session.

In certain parts of contemporary America, these activities wouldn't register as unusual. But to a self-described liberal, East Coast, upper-class person like director Debra Granik, the world she set out to depict in the new film "Winter's Bone" might as well have been a foreign country.

"I did not have a connection to that region," Granik said recently, speaking of the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where her tautly poetic drama takes place. Although she didn't expect the area to be "exotic," she said, "my imagination had one thing, but I was conjuring something that felt more like 'Little House on the Prairie.' "

Adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel, the bleak narrative world of "Winter's Bone" has little in common with the homespun coziness of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. But it does share one key element: an indelible, intrepid young heroine.

In "Winter's Bone," that would be Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a fiercely determined 16-year-old who's stoically bearing the weight of an invalid mother, two clingy younger siblings and a ne'er-do-well father who has jumped bail on charges of cooking crystal meth. If Ree can't somehow find her missing dad before his court date, the impoverished family will lose its home to a bondsman.

With only her wits to guide her, and a clutch of suspicious neighbors and edgy relatives, including her cagey uncle Teardrop ( John Hawkes), barring her path, Ree sets off on a search for identity that also will be a journey into her community's darkest places, its clannish rules of conduct and scarring rites of passage.

The modestly budgeted independent film, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at January's Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters Friday.

Although rarely portrayed in mass commercial culture — let alone with empathy and discernment — the small-town Ozark environs of "Winter's Bone" are rich in a folklore and a distinctive language that the movie strives to capture.

The Missouri-born Woodrell writes often about his native turf, and his fictional locales have drawn critical comparisons with Flannery O'Connor's Georgia, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles and William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.Critics have praised his prose for elevating his all-American settings and characters to the level of Greek tragedies in a way that has reminded reviewers of Cormac McCarthy ( "No Country for Old Men") and Charles Frazier ("Cold Mountain").

But according to Granik, it wasn't so much ancient mythic themes as stark modern realities that inspired Woodrell to envision Ree's story.

"He didn't start from 'Antigone,' " Granik said, referring to Sophocles' classic about a king's daughter intent on burying her disgraced brother. Instead, he discovered the novel's inspiration in a local convenience store, where he observed a young woman with two small children, trying to feed her family on $7. "He couldn't tell from the back if she was the mom or the older sister. And he started to just postulate and wonder about her life."

Granik's personal pedigree hardly could be further from that of the characters in "Winter's Bone."

A child of the anonymous Washington, D.C., suburbs, granddaughter of broadcasting pioneer Theodore Granik and graduate of Brandeis University, Granik always has been fascinated with strongly rooted people and places. Her 2004 breakout feature film, "Down to the Bone," which spotlighted the emerging talent of Vera Farmiga ( George Clooney's bedmate in "Up in the Air"), takes place in remote upstate New York, another area that lies far outside the New York-L.A. pop-culture production center.

Making "Winter's Bone," Granik said, prompted her to examine and, in some cases, change her own attitudes on several issues, including firearms, hunting and even dietary habits (she's a vegetarian).

She began immersing herself in the locale with help from the Missouri Film Commission and Woodrell, who put her in touch with a regional historian-folklorist and introduced her to the sheriff in the town where he lives. Making their base camp in the tourist city of Branson, the film crew gradually began to make contacts and find locations among the area's hills and hollows.

Local residents, some of whom ended up being cast in secondary parts, helped the crew learn the mechanics of skinning a squirrel, crafting a bluegrass banjo line and other skills that can be advantageous to the art of survival, whether physically, economically or culturally.

Granik and her writing partner, Rosellini, hewed closely to the novel's structure and savored the regional dialogue, which she said possesses "an off-handed poetry."

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