"Winter's Bone" examines rural poverty

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) faces an uncertain future after her father puts up the family farm as surity on a bail bond and then skips town in "Winter's Bone"
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions (photo Sebastian Mlynarski)

Film director Debra Granik knew she had to be careful when adapting Daniel Woodrell's novel "Winter's Bone" for the screen.

Set in an impoverished isolated community in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, her film had to show the harsh realities of mountain life while dodging simplistic stereotypes and cliches.

She says she was driven on by the desire to tell the heroic story of the central character, a 17-year-old woman called Ree Dolly.

Ree Dolly has a problem. She lives in her family's home with her younger brother and sister. Her mother's mental illness had made her catatonic. Her father Jessup, who is well-known as a methamphetamine cooker, disappeared two weeks ago. Then the Sheriff turns up to tell Ree her father is out on bail, and he's due in court next week.

"Where you all come into this is, he put this house here, and your timber acres up for his bond," says the Sheriff.

"He what now?" says Ree.

"Jessup signed over everything. If he doesn't show at trial, see, the way the deal works is, you all going to lose this place."

"I'll find him," Ree says determinedly.

"Girl, I've been looking," the Sheriff begins to reply, but Ree cuts him off.

"I said I'd find him."

Ree's search takes her through the small mountain towns around her family's place. While she is related to most of the people she meets, she finds when it comes to her father, they are less than willing to help.

Director Debra Granik says she read Daniel Woodrell's book "Winter's Bone" in one sitting. She says it's a tightly spun American story.

Debra Granik
Director Debra Granik challenged her team with how to portray the realities of life in the Ozark mountains without resorting to cliche in "Winter's Bone
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"You've got this very modest piece of land, you've got a very modest house, your family's had these timber acres, these woods, for quite a lot of years, and even that can be taken from you," Granik said.

Making things worse is the community is riddled with methamphetamine, with Ree's relatives both making and using the highly addictive drug.

"It makes moonshine and marijuana look benevolent," says Granik.

In the film, Ree is repeatedly warned she should just leave well enough alone.

But Granik says Ree is determined, even as the search gets harder, and more dangerous.

"There's no-one who could ever contest that Ree shouldn't be fighting for these significant strands of her life," she says.

"It makes moonshine and marijuana look benevolent."

What attracted Granik to Ree as a character is the way she draws strength from the self-reliance prized by the community trying to shut her down.

She was also intrigued by another element of Daniel Woodrell's storytelling. Just when his novel seems to reach a climax he adds something to the mix, another component of the story which changes everything.

Granik calls this technique 'the ands.' The 'ands' repeatedly allow the bonds of family, and inherent kindness to overcome suspicion and fear, allowing other people to help Ree.

Granik wanted to make sure she got the community right, so shot the entire production on location in a town in southwestern Missouri. She and her crew, who came from the East and West coasts, researched what it's like to be dependent on subsistence hunting.

"The question, 'Is squirrel commonly eaten in the United States?" Granik asks. "In 2010?"

The answer: yes, at least in the Ozarks.

Mountain communities are notoriously suspicious of outsiders, but the crew found a family willing to work with it, to explain their lives, and to act as go-betweens with other people who could help with the film.

Granik says she was conscious of how many of the people they worked with felt they had been misrepresented in films in the past. She points out 35 years after the movie "Deliverance" was released, the banjo is still a loaded symbol. This rankled her as she saw the importance of music in the mountains, as they heard families play at gatherings in their homes.

"Because the banjo I felt had gotten pegged, that someone plays the banjo and they turn around and kill you somehow," she says. "And this was unacceptable as this banjo kept coming as this literally this instrument of literally lyrical, I would say divine entertainment."

Ree and her brother
In "Winter's Bone," based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Ree struggles to look after her brother and sister while facing financial ruin caused by her father's involvement in meth dealing.
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions (photo: Sebastian Mlynarski)

Granik is not naive about the realities of rural poverty and the social ills that can travel alongside. But she says she hopes "Winter's Bone" strikes the right balance between the good and the bad -- capturing Daniel Woodrell's "ands".

"The film definitely stokes and refers to hillbilly images that are tried and true," she says. "And if the 'and' doesn't come through then in some sense we are cooked, because we did represent without changing much. But if people think that Ree is just a really excellent gal under anybody's value system, then we are going somewhere really good with this."

It appears some people think so.

"Winter's Bone" won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film at Sundance this year. Granik says she's heard good things from the people in the Ozarks too, who see the movie's dark undertones in the tradition of the passionate ballads for which the area is famed.

Debra Granik will introduce the film tonight at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The film is released in New York and California theaters this week. It will open in Minnesota June 25th.

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