Mapping the backwoods noir of slow-burn wonder Winter's Bone
FILM Winter's Bone has already won awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, but it's the kind of downbeat, low-key, quiet film that may elude larger audiences (and, as these things go, Oscar voters). Like Andrea Arnold's recent Fish Tank, it tells the story of a teenage girl who draws on unlikely reserves of toughness to navigate an unstable family life amid less-than-ideal economic circumstances. And it's also directed by a woman: Debra Granik, whose previous feature, 2004's Down to the Bone, starred Vera Farmiga (2009's Up in the Air) as a checkout clerk trying to balance two kids and a secret coke habit.
Drugs also figure into the plot of the harrowing Winter's Bone, though its protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is faced with a different set of circumstances: her meth head father has jumped bail, leaving the family's humble mountain home as collateral; the two kids at stake are her younger siblings. With no resources other than her own tenacity, Ree strikes out into her rural Missouri community, seeking information from relatives who clearly know where her father is — but ain't sayin' a word.
It's a journey fraught with menace, shot with an eye for near-documentary realism and an appreciation for slow-burn suspense. Who says American independent film is dead? I spoke with Granik and Lawrence when they were in San Francisco before the local premiere of Winter's Bone at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
SFBG How did you two come together?
Jennifer Lawrence I read the script, and it was the best female role I'd ever seen, and such a good movie. I basically wouldn't let them not hire me. I was in L.A. — that's where I auditioned — and then when I heard they were auditioning girls in New York, I flew to New York like a psycho.
Debra Granik She didn't act like a psycho, but she did have one thing going for her: she came off a red-eye.
JL I did not look glamorous!
DG In my mind I was like, "That's so right on." In American filmmaking, the expectations of physical perfection can sometimes be almost a jail cell, if you will. And it can be the one thing that makes a character not believable. Everything about them is shouting, "This couldn't be your life experience!" So it's something actors really have to make a commitment to, and be open to that. And not everybody is.
SFBG Winter's Bone depicts the Ozarks as an extremely closed-off world, even for a character who is born into it. How did you get access?
DG It took a lot of brick-building to get there, and a lot of repeat visits. It took having people read the novel [by Daniel Woodrell]. We had certain proposals: "This is what we'd like to do. Your property has these houses on it. It could really populate Ree's world, but please read this book and know what it's about." Over time, and with the help of a man from the local community, that dialogue continued — we needed someone local, absolutely, to make the discussion meaningful and honest between everybody.
SFBG The supporting cast includes known faces like Deadwood's John Hawkes, who plays Ree's unstable uncle, but also several amateur actors. How was it working with them?
JL I love it. They're very natural. They're not straining to think, "What should I say next?" I thought they were terrific. I thought they were better than I was.
SFBG Popular culture loves to portray backwoods folks as banjo-picking hicks, but Winter's Bone avoids stereotypes. What was your approach?
DG The first thing that comes to mind — the overarching concept — is the word "and." Ree Dolly can have a chemically dependent uncle who's a big problem, and he has some very intense loyalties to the family in his own gnarly, difficult, convoluted, tragic way. [The film isn't trying to] make an ethical or puritanical judgment on drug taking or anything. This has left her in a very raw and difficult position, and she's got really intense family values of her own. She cares about her two siblings. So I think people recognize the and. That's our hope — that audiences will vibe off the and of the whole thing.
WINTER'S BONE opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.