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Review/Interview: Winter's Bone

Films opening this week:
Ramona and Beezus - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Transit, Elmwood, Galleria, Quaker Regals; Flix
Salt - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Elmwood, Transit, Galleria, Hollywood, Quaker Regals; Flix; Transit Drive-In - REVIEW
Winter's Bone - Eastern Hills Dipson

While attending the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival in Rochester, I was struck by the selection of festival winners presenting their films. With so many award-winners, I went in blindly to whatever fit into my schedule—I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to see these in theaters for months, if at all, in Buffalo. After three straight days of movies, Winter’s Bone, the winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama, ended up being my final film. I was aware of writer/director Debra Granik’s debut feature, Down to the Bone, but mostly for the breakout performance of Vera Farmiga rather than the film itself. The utterly compelling realism and drama of her new film caused me to jump at the opportunity to interview her.

Opening this Friday, July 23rd, Winter's Bone is a welcome breath of fresh air in a muggy atmosphere of summer blockbuster behemoths. Described as country noir by source author Daniel Woodrell, the film features a seventeen-year-old protagonist named Ree. She takes care of her young brother and sister, along with a nonverbal mother. Her absent father has posted their house for bond in order to leave prison. With a court date soon approaching, Ree and her helpless wards will be homeless if he doesn't step up. She takes it upon herself to venture out and find the elusive dad (Jessup).

The film is an authentic view of a world rarely exposed to public view. Granik and producer/co-writer Anne Rosellini became a part of the Ozark community they filmed in for almost three years preparing, gaining the trust of those residing there, using their land and homes, as well as making sure every detail was accurate. The filmmakers learned the importance of a thing like the family horse—an essential member of the household. Every paycheck is allocated to the penny in order for the family to survive.

Acting as more than just vessels for authenticity, some of these Ozark residents played small roles in the film, adding depth to the actors' interactions. When the character of Ree looks to join the army to make money for her brother and sister, the recruiter she interacts with is the real thing. According to Debra Granik:

“We talked to recruiters and in the end … one recruiter was brave enough to say he’d consent to be in front of the camera. And basically, what I had him do was answer Ree’s questions very realistically, by the law, in terms of when a person can actually enter the US military without parental consent ... What helped him was that Jen [Lawrence] knew the scene; she knew the parameters, so she could keep the scene basically the same every time. She wasn’t going to fling new questions at him; she wasn’t going to disarm him. It wasn’t about [improvising]; it was about [her asking] him the same questions and he honestly answering her. … But I think that Jennifer did get a lot; he didn’t answer everything exactly the same, his wording would change. In fact, he felt that he needed to be more emphatic, so he would say it a little differently. And that meant she couldn’t just be passively waiting to use his last word as her cue, because it wasn’t going to be the same last word every time. Instead, she had to listen so intently that she could actually respond very precisely. And that added a very important charge to the scene."

The actors themselves bring tour de force performances. Winter's Bone finds a strong structure from the novel it's based on, but the performances raise it to the next level. John Hawkes plays Ree's uncle, the only person willing to help her. Granik uses the word "religious" when describing his level of commitment to the character—he dirties himself up, roughens his edges, and does great justice to the script—he even cajoled his director into adding back some passages she had removed.

Star Jennifer Lawrence—recently cast as Mystique in the new X-Men: First Class—dominates the film as Ree Dolly. Fearless in her quest and willing to say and do things that will only get her beaten and possibly killed, the strength of the film can only rise as high as she’s able to take it. And Granik can't say enough about her talent:

"“I think [Jennifer will] have a lot of offers to be in a huge amount of films. I think that people will respond to the fact, first of all, that she’s had a very unusual early pathway, which is that she has not just been asked to play an attractive blonde. She has literally—all the films she has been in—been asked to use her mind as well and to show a full-fledged character.

“So, if that can continue, that will be a very unusual trajectory. That will be much more like what happened to Jodie Foster, in the sense that Foster was enjoyed as someone who people could also rely on being a very intelligent person as well as, sometimes when she was young, endearing or cute or whatever. And, I don’t know, I think that, god, if things had gone right for Tatum O’Neal, I think maybe she could even have enjoyed something similar, if things hadn’t gotten so botched—what happened in her life and whatnot.”

The sheer joy with which Debra Granik speaks about her cast and crew is inspiring. At the end of our interview, I mentioned Winter’s Bone opening on Buffalo screens in a couple weeks, and she was excited at the prospect. Granik told me a great story about her own visit to the Queen City while casting Down to the Bone almost a decade earlier. Looking to meet Hugh Dillon, (who ultimately won the male lead), she came to the city to watch him perform with his band the Headstones. Granik couldn’t get over the fervor we Buffalonians showed in a small venue, grooving and singing along to each song. Hopefully, local audiences will feel a similar fervor toward this great film.

Click here for a full 8/10 review of the film or here for the full interview piece.

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