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Sundance 2010: 'Winter's Bone' takes audiences into the Ozarks

January 25, 2010 |  5:13 pm

Bone 

There are plenty of movies at this year’s Sundance film festival that take audiences into new and unexpected places -- the gangster underworld of Melbourne, Australia, in “Animal Kingdom,” drug-running Hasssidic Jews in "Holy Rollers" -- but no Park City offering transports viewers to as distinctive and haunting a place as director Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” which some Sundance patrons have called the best movie in the festival so far.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel and set in Southern Missouri’s Ozark woods, the film follows indomitable 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she scours the pine-strewn hills and hollows near her cabin home in search of her missing meth-cooking father, who put their house up for bond after he was arrested. At the same time she's hunting for her father, Ree must care for her ailing mother and her young brother and sister. Ree’s terrifying outlaw kin are none to happy that she’s asking questions and dredging up the past, but her mission remains singular: find her father and protect her family.

The naturalistic thriller is saturated with small, telling details that collectively create an undeniable authenticity and regional authority; one set of neighbors is dressing a recently slaughtered deer, and more than one rusted-out car litters the otherwise bucolic landscape. This is no accident. Granik, who won the director’s award at the 2004 Sundance for her film “Down to the Bone,” explained her filming process as “visual anthropology.”

“At first blush, I’m always attracted to a place I’ve never been or a life that’s outside my own experience,” says Granik, who lives in New York City and describes herself as a “super-metropolitan person.” “That’s a curiosity that has driven my life. On a playful day, I call it a good form of voyeurism. I’m just curious about peoples’ lives.”

The impoverished but proud hill communities outside of the Branson/Springfield area weren’t exactly offering open arms to outsiders, or “city slickers” as Granik said they were called when they first showed up. But initial skepticism eventually lead to mutual curiosity as Granik started making her movie not by rolling cameras but by researching families similar to those portrayed in Woodrell’s book.

The production first hired a local fixer, a man from the area named Richard Michael, who “could put in plain language what we were up to.” After several introductions, they ultimately found a family who agreed to let Granik observe their daily existence, watching them hunt squirrels, chop wood, cook potatoes (with a scoop of lard in the skillet, sliced by hand over the stove, peels on), pick banjos at bluegrass gatherings and care for their animals. Granik shot video and took photographs, which helped “augment the skeleton” of the script and inform the overall film, Granik explained.

The family and their neighbors became what Granik refers to as “life models,” or “a model that you can ask questions, see different details -- a certain way they wear their coat or a way they walk their dog. Anything about how they perform their daily tasks. Just being able to ask someone ‘I know this sounds weird but can I roll a little video as you talk to your horses?’”

Granik, who first started working on “Winter’s Bone” in 2006, ultimately shot the film in 2009 entirely on location in Missouri. They cast locals in supporting roles and used them as dialect coaches. The costume department exchanged Carhartt jackets and plaid flannels with residents, to make sure the garments were stained with the dirt, soot and work of the local land.

“It was these details,” Granik said, “that helped us flesh out the characters.”

-- Tim Swanson

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone." Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski


 
Comments () | Archives (7)

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As a hillbilly myself, I am very interested in viewing this film. I did find comments by director Granik, such as "...how they walk their dogs" to be disingenuine. Hillfolk don't walk their dogs. Nevertheless, I look forward to this movie with interest. I only hope that my people have been treated accurately.

I'm an L.A. native, but I spent a large chunk of my life in the Ozarks- especially the Springfield/Branson area. I reside in NYC now, but I'm really happy that my hometown is getting some recognition outside "The Beverly Hillbillies"....but for real? This article makes us all Ozarkians sound like we're impoverished methheads. Yeah, poverty exists, meth is a problem, it's a red state. But the author and the director make us 417ers sound like we're idiots. Yeah, we like tuna casserole, but a lot of us voted for Obama, there's an emerging art and music scene, we've got a lot of pretty cool people who claim the Ozarks as their hometown. Narrowing the Ozarks down to its negative and archaic qualities is retardedly offensive, even to someone who used to eschew Springfield/Branson as their hometown. Congratulations, you just reinforced the "city slicker" stereotype you were trying to avoid.

and congratulations to the "yokel locals" who were involved in producing an apparently amazing piece of film.

I have to agree with commenter Anne Frank - this article reinforces the "city slicker" stereotype. But perhaps even more disappointing is the way this article boils down the making of Winter's Bone to some culture clash between the city cousin and country yokels who don't even know what electricity is. I live in Springfield, I was born here, raised here and while I've lived other places, even L.A., I've always returned here because what this article fails to understand is this: The midwest is alive with culture, sure we've got meth, and nature, and poverty. But in Springfield especially, we have a community of some of the finest artists, musicians, actors, writers etc. that I have ever seen - better than most of what I saw in L.A. Springfield may just be the most talented town in the midwest. What concerns me even more is the perception this article leaves that we Ozarkers didn't "understand" what the filmmakers wanted to do, that we were suspicious and unwelcoming. It was quite the opposite. In fact, without the support of the local film community, university film departments, and Film Alliance of Springfield - I guarantee this movie would never have gotten made. The film community in Springfield rallied around this production and were thrilled to help in every way possible. I think it's important that people understand that, and understand that we too, speak English and we do not all live in log cabins and hunt and eat squirrels for dinner.
Congratulations to all of you in the Springfield film community who participated in the production of this film. I, for one and incredibly proud of you, and terribly excited to see it.

I have to agree with the expressions of these other 3 comments. As a transplant from Beverly Hills to rural VA (and a long genetic history with Maries, MO), I will be interested to see this film, however the tone of this article makes it sound like anyone from MO, the mountains or any rural area, is somehow completely clueless as to what 'them city-folk are up to' and need a local translator to 'splain it all.

I laughed when I first saw the photo of the girl on the cabin porch! As I thought "Wow, that's a nice cabin and the porch & wood, etc are all in really great well maintained shape!" - which would not be the case in a truly impoverished rural meth environment.

NYC & LA have their share of poverty and drugs too. I wonder how they cook their potatoes? LOL!

Having lived in a very rural area of the Missouri Ozarks most of my life, I have to say that this article mostly strikes me as funny. City slickers? Banjos? Log cabins? Did the author just watch 'Deliverance' and extrapolate that to the Ozarks?

We speak and understand English (even fancy city English), we watch independent films, and we are quite aware of the goings-on at Sundance. Thank you for patronizing us, though. Next time I'm in Los Angeles, I'll have to make sure to wander the streets with a wide-eyed bewilderment, and inquire about where one could possibly catch fresh squirrel for supper.

I fully agree with Anne Frank's sentiments. I live in NYC and just saw the NY premier at MOMA. As someone who grew up in a small rural town in the American midlands, I left the film mildly offended and a bit incredulous at unanimous glowing reviews from big critics and as well as armchair reviewers. Yes, it was beautifully crafted, acted, and paced. The story was engaging and well told. But many reviewers wrote how this film "fights stereotypes." I'm left wondering...how? The portrayed impoverished hill people are: dirty, mean, uneducated, violent, strung-out, and dog-infested. Oh, and there's not a yard not littered with defunct old cars. With a film, in terms of audience experience, is it not very difficult to separate story content and context? The director is art schooled city folk, and I'm sure her intention was not to condescend. But in reality who is it that will see this indie film, and what impression of these exotic, albeit poor, "others" will they leave the theater with?

I fully agree with Anne Frank's sentiments. I live in NYC and just saw the NY premier at MOMA. As someone who grew up in a small rural town in the American midlands, I left the film mildly offended and a bit incredulous at unanimous glowing reviews from big critics and as well as armchair reviewers. Yes, it was beautifully crafted, acted, and paced. The story was engaging and well told. But many reviewers wrote how this film "fights stereotypes." I'm left wondering...how? The portrayed impoverished hill people are: dirty, mean, uneducated, violent, gun-totin', squirrel-eatin', strung-out, and dog-infested. Oh, and there's not a yard not littered with defunct old cars. With a film, in terms of audience experience, is it not very difficult to separate story content and context? The director is art schooled city folk, and I'm sure her intention was not to condescend. But in reality who is it that will see this indie film, and what impression of these exotic, albeit poor, "others" will they leave the theater with?


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