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

January 25, 2010 |  5:13 pm


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