THE MELODRAMA-FREE indie movie Winter's Bone is like a Little Red Riding Hood story in which there's nothing but wolves. The film is about how the outlaw culture in the Ozarks hasn't changed much from the days of Jesse James 135 years ago: sprawling clans still evade the law and deal out their own kind of justice. The only difference is that the business of moonshining has evolved into speed-cooking.
Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, Debra Granik's spare, gripping film concerns 17-year-old Ree Dolly (a tough and thoroughly believable Jennifer Lawrence) and her search for a father who has vanished.
Before he skipped bail on a meth-making charge, father Jessup signed over his house and woods to the bail bondsmen. Ree had planned to join the Army and use the signing bonus to help the rest of her family—two young children and a mother incapacitated with depression. Instead, the girl has to hunt up a father who doesn't want to be found and try to get the truth from distant relatives who know much more than they're saying. Ree is sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by her young Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes).
Ree must beat her way through the stonewalling of her violent relations (a typical greeting: "What brings you here? Somebody died?"). Ree resolves to get to the one closest to the center of the labyrinth: a bear-size granddad, played by the nonpro actor Ronnie Hall. This ill-tempered bruiser is named Thump, without any unnecessary explanation.
Granik, who made Down to the Bone with Vera Farmiga, films in the half-frozen hills near Springfield, Missouri—a forbidding landscape of bare trees, blue wood smoke and mobile home compounds guarded by chained-up pit bulls, of truck headlights that burst in suddenly on the rural roads and of a Stygian swamp where the mystery ends.
But one doesn't get a sense of watching a city director glomming onto the squalor. When Granik cuts to a folk jam session led by singer/folklorist Maredith Sisco, the film practically glows from the goodness of the music. At this gathering, we see a familiar face.
One of the people Ree interrogates in her journey is April (Sheryl Lee), the ex-girlfriend of a cousin. Lee will never be forgot for her performance as the sylvan Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks. How to put this? She'll always be a beautiful woman, but she's aged noticeably. Lee—a forest spirit seen in winter—really compliments Granik's theme of ruin in these dark woods; her presence is of those feats of iconic casting that makes you gasp a little.
The subject matter of Winter's Bone might have come from John Sayles—the writing is sympathetic and low-key as in a Sayles picture—but Granik seems more watchful in her choice of nonpro actors than Sayles was, framing them smartly, giving them more room. And no sense—as in Sayles—of a script that has it all down in print, or of the doubly underscored emphasis on the goodness of the working-person's heart.
Winter's Bone stays mysterious, even as it strays close to documentary. The most talked-about scene—the skinning and cleaning of a squirrel for dinner—is one of the most immaterial. This can't be the first squirrel the Dolly family has eaten. And the scene of Ree giving shooting lessons to her little brother just before he bags that squirrel also seems false: most kids in the deep woods shoot at an early age.
Nevertheless, Winter's Bone's fineness lies in the little details: the no-comment tour of Ree's high school, the ROTC practicing in the gym and a solidly improvised scene of an Army recruiter lowering an applicant's expectations. Even joining the military might not be a way out of these woods. Lawrence's own fierceness gives this survival story the kind of immediacy that the summer's action movies can only grope at.
R; 100 min.
A film by Debra Granik
Opens June 18
Close to the Bone
Richard von Busack interview director Debra Granik and actress Jennifer Lawrence about their new film "Winter's Bone"
Winter's Bone, which opens June 18, concerns 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl on a journey to find her fugitive father. She has a narrow amount of time before the bail bondsmen grab her house. Some observers have stressed the Greek tragedy angle of this compact, tense and intelligently acted film. What struck me more was the well-developed vision of the troubles of the hill country of Missouri, blighted by a frightening illegal economy and blitzed by meth. Director Debra Granik's movie gives you a memorable portrait of a young woman's true grit; Jennifer Lawrence's performance is one of the most remarkable of the year in film.
METRO: What is the novel Winter's Bone like?
GRANIK: Daniel Woodrell's novel is very tightly written; it had a very strong story structure that lent itself to easy adaptation to a screenplay. The novel takes place in a very short amount of time, which also makes it doable.
METRO: Is it contemporary?
GRANIK: He wrote it in 2007. It's supposed to be contemporary times, but not everybody knows that when they read it. It was something we had to bring out in filming. We didn't have a scene that utilized cell phones, for instance, but we welcomed them. It was important that people knew it was 2010—well, 2009 when we were filming. People are heating their houses with wood stoves, but every yard had satellite dishes. The art department didn't cover that up.
METRO: Where did you film?
GRANIK: In Missouri, in Christian and Taney counties, which are counties between Springfield and Branson. Fifteen minutes out of Branson, the highways are rural roads into the Mark Twain forest. We were limited to two counties, but they served our needs so well. We could have infrastructure, the crew could stay in hotels in Branson and still be close to the kinds of places Daniel described in his novel. We got a lot of assistance from the Missouri film commission.
METRO: Out there is a way of life that hasn't changed a hell of a lot in decades, and even the name of the missing father, Jessie, makes one think that the story could have gone back to Jesse James.
GRANIK: Hill culture is old, but there's a certain pride of place. The term "hillbilly" is a multivalent word, with rich definitions, including a sense of identity and fierce independence. It doesn't just mean someone sitting outside the law—it means people wanting to retain their hill existence as opposed to their town existence.
In the towns we were filming in, people were cooking on wood stoves, wild game is hunted and the matriarch of the family is a greeter at Wal-Mart ... and everyone is exposed to MTV every hour of her day. The older people are exposed to seeing their sayings erode. What they're saying may not make it to the next two generations. There may be a time when the spoken language get so homogenized we might not be able to hear an Ozark dialect.
METRO: Did you feel like outsiders there?
LAWRENCE: Well, I'm from Louisville, though that world is different. At first you want to just stand back and observe, I watched for a long time and waited to integrate myself a little bit. Everybody was nice and welcoming.
METRO: But there was an initial suspicion?
GRANIK: Yes, very at the beginning—very abrupt humor comes from the situation. They said, "When we saw you come out of the car dressed in black, we knew you were city slickers." Though at the end of the shoot we got a nice compliment: "For a city slicker you ain't so bad."
The locals were curious—they asked a bazillion questions about our daily life—about the bizarreness of living in a high-rise cubicle. It was a mutual cultural exchange. And I had to be ready for that, so did everyone else. Curiosity about another people's life isn't one-sided.
METRO: Jennifer, which scenes in this film were the hardest, and which was your favorite?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: The barn scene was the hardest. And the scene leading up to the barn scene, that was hard too ... because I'm not good with stunts. And the boat scene was my favorite.
METRO: There's the same cast in the barn scene and the boat scene, come to think of it.
LAWRENCE: I loved my scenes with John Hawkes, because he's an alien. He's just unbelievable, just the nicest man in the world, and I loved learning from him. For some reason I had so much fun doing the scene at Little Arthur's house—I didn't want to wrap that scene—maybe it was just that Kevin Breznahan was a lot of fun. He has honest eyes, and he reacts so well—it was fun digging into him.
METRO: I was surprised at the density of the scene with Ree at the Army recruiter's. I take it that Russell Schalk is a nonpro actor and a professional recruiter, and he's probably had to tell people just what he tells Ree in real life.
GRANIK: That was a moving part of the film, doing research. Coastal people don't know about this much. When we were there ... the locals didn't say it in any hostile way, they said it softly, but it was like, "You coastal people don't have a clue about what the U.S. Army means to us in this four-state area." The statistical majority of the Army comes out of a very few states. Joining the military is a very active part about coming of age in the Ozarks. There are families with service for three or four generations.
As for Schalk himself, we found to be a very soulful person, interested in exploring this scene with us and performing it. When we screened Winter's Bone in Kansas City, he brought his family to see it. He'd never seen himself on film. I hope his superiors feel good about the way he handled the scene, a very complex portrait of recruiting—and Jennifer kept the Ree Dolly side of it going. She was the backbone of the scene.
METRO: Was there a lot of rehearsal for this particular scene?
GRANIK: Rehearsal was pretty minimal, but we did a lot of takes—when you do improv, there are a lot of takes to tie it back together. Because the scene was working, we did full coverage, had the two shots, and the wide shots—it was mind-blowing for Russell to see how much coverage we had.
We felt that since the material was strong, so let's not forsake the singles shots: his eyes are intense, she's doing a great job, let's spend the penny and go. When a scene is working, you do get greedy: you want the coverage, you already have a sense that the scene could flourish and get beautiful.
METRO: I also got fixated on Sheryl Lee's short scene in the film. Could you kind of sense fans of Twin Peaks jumping in their seats when she appeared?
GRANIK: That's the intensity of fans-there are so many moviegoers who do take a shine to a certain actor, and I know Sheryl Lee has them: people who are rooting for her to see her work.
She took a risk—she had to come a great distance for a small amount of time. Many of the cast members do have that kind of special connection, they get under the skin of people, just like John Hawkes does for Deadwood—and here too.
METRO: I'm wondering if you feel Winter's Bone has been misinterpreted in any way.
GRANIK: Yes. The film is so vulnerable to that. I end up talking about that a lot. There are difficult members of this family, yet Ree has outstanding values—she cares so much, and she's doing something so classically American by defending her home. There are so many seminal American films that deal with this kind of character. In this time of foreclosures, it has resonance: Ree is saying, "This is all I've got, and you'll take the one last thing that keeps my family together and scatter us to the wind and have the Department of Social Services take us over?"
Ree to me has these impeccable family values; she is a lioness. I'm always hoping that when people see this movie they'll think—yes, Ree's family members act poorly, because they got involved in an illegal activity that has devastated them and that's made them act unethically among themselves. Snitching becomes a problem—in any mafia that forms, in any racial or ethnic group, snitching will rip a family apart.
We don't want all this pinned to the hill culture or the Ozarks. There's something universal about hard-scrabble existence: we're hoping that the music—the glorious, beautiful exquisite music—is a counterbalance. What makes this film work for people is that it's not saying the Dolly family is any one thing—Winter's Bone is saying they're a bunch of things. And one of these things for them is fighting for what's right, for protection for their family.