Southern discomfort: Winter's Bone

New York filmmaker Debra Granik turns an Ozarks crime novel into an instant classic.

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Like a lot of filmmakers, Debra Granik found herself unintentionally cursed by doing something right. Her feature debut, 2004’s Down to the Bone, told the story of an upstate New York mother struggling with a crippling drug addiction in a way that surprisingly bypassed melodramatic clichs and found the perfect balance of muted sympathy and grit. When Granik, 47, and her writing-producing partner, Anne Rosellini, were ready to do a follow-up, they found themselves plowing through prospective stories sent to them by their agent about more troubled women...and virtually nothing else.

“What’s that word for something that’s been chewed for so long that it loses flavor?” Granik asks, calling in from a press stop in Los Angeles. “Cud! We were getting a lot of what we called 'cud scripts’; there’d inevitably be a female character dealing with a social issue, and you could tell that it’d been worked over so much that everything felt predigested. The majority of the narratives we were being handed just felt overly familiar. All of which made Daniel Woodrell’s book stick out that much more.”

A cult author who specializes in crime fiction set in the Missouri backwoods, Woodrell has a distinctly Southern Gothic sensibility that doesn’t exactly scream “New York indie-humanist moviemaker.” But from the moment Granik started reading Winter’s Bone, his Ozark noir about a scrappy rural teen named Ree Dolly who takes on the region’s drug-running syndicate while looking for her MIA father, the writer-director couldn’t put it down. After Granik and Rosselini secured the rights to his book and convinced the novelist that they didn’t want to turn his work into a Li’l Abner Redux version of the South, Woodrell bestowed his blessing and introduced them to the community he’d dramatized.

“It was important for us to understand how the landscape plays into his story,” Granik says. “Believe me, as outsiders, we were terrified of taking such a specific story of a specific subculture, and making it into our personal fantasy of what the Ozarks might be like. Thankfully, the community gave us a profound amount of help; they’d tell us whether a line of dialogue read wrong, make sure we got our facts right. Once, we asked around for a location, and someone replied, 'Yeah, I think I got a place there for you.... Do you want, like, cows in the shot or not?’”

Gaining the locals’ trust was Granik’s crucial first step; finding the right young actor to embody the iron-willed, take-no-shit Ree would be her next challenge. She lucked out spectacularly in meeting Jennifer Lawrence (The Burning Plain)—the kind of happy casting accident that makes you think the 19-year-old was bred, if not born, to play the role. “I like characters that refuse to accept no as an answer,” Lawrence says. “Plus I come from the South—Lowell, Kentucky—and though I didn’t grow up skinning squirrels, I understood where Ree was coming from. She’s tough, but still a teenager, even though she’s had to take care of her family totally on her own.” She pauses, before adding with a giggle, “Unless you count Teardrop.”

Ah, yes: Teardrop, Ree’s meth-addicted uncle and one of the scariest characters to slither out of an American movie in ages. From the moment this gaunt guardian angel casually whispers a threat (“I already told you to shut up once with my mouth”), you get the sense that this damaged man is one nanosecond away from violence. For Deadwood’s John Hawkes, that unpredictibility was part of the attraction. “I wanted the audience to be unsure whether this relative of Ree’s would rescue her or kill her,” the actor says. “The beauty of the character is that he doesn’t have an epiphany or some big revelation. He’s still the same guy at the end; it’s the audience’s perception of him that changes. Personally, I love it when a film totally flips around my first impression.”

Indeed, Hawkes’s sentiment could apply to Winter’s Bone overall: It’s a film that starts off like a typical Sundance drama—rural poverty, threatened foreclosures, lots of regional spice—before turning into an airtight thriller without sacrificing either its humanity or cultural anthropology. (Its Grand Jury Prize win in Park City last January was a no-brainer.) But the idea, according to the director, was less about upending expectations than exploring the story’s dualities. “The whole movie is predicated on a series of ands,” Granik says. “Ree has got to be strong and she’s still a vulnerable kid; Teardrop is dangerous and he’s protective of her; it’s a recognizable genre film and it’s an attempt to look at the South in a very unique way.”

Read our review of Winter’s Bone

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