Film Club: ‘Winter’s Bone’
Country Noir? Maybe Not But It Is Dark
Friday, June 25, 2010
Host Maureen Cavanaugh discusses "Winter's Bone" with film critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright.
"Winter's Bone" (opening June 25 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) walked away with the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film concerns a young girl who needs to find her father in order to prevent their house from being taken by the bail bond company that took the house as collateral for his father's bond.
"Winter's Bone" is a collaboration of women: writer-director Debra Granik, writer Anne Rosellini, and actress Jennifer Lawrence. But it is by no means a chick flick. Some have called it "country noir" but that seems to be more about trying to label a film that refuses to be tied up in a pretty little package. I have to confess that it took me a little while to warm up to "Winter's Bone." Initially I felt that Lawrence's Ozark mountain girl Ree was going to be a stereotypical tough as nails, mature past her years, uneducated, poverty stricken character. But through a meticulous attention to detail, and an unflinching and non-judgmental eye Granik creates a vivid and chilling portrait of Missouri community set far off from the mainstream.
What won me over was the way Granik depicted the women. The women were a surprising force in this community and were capable of casual and brutal violence. They were fully capable of administering local justice and took an active part in some of the more disturbing scenes in the film (I don't want to reveal too much here). In an environment where people turn to crime as a means of survival, these women prove to be as tough and ruthless as any Mafia mobster. And Ree's fierce and unswerving determination proves riveting. Granik deserves praise for her naturalistic and low key approach to some occasionally disturbing material. What Ree has to go through to finally locate her father rivals most horror movies but within a far more realistic context. Granik never tries to sensationalize, moralize, or victimize. She takes a refreshingly clear-eyed and matter of fact approach to her material. (The source material is actually a novel by Daniel Woodrell.)
"Winter's Bone" may be a bleak film but it's a bright beacon in terms of the promising talent on display. Here's our Film Club of the Air discussion.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is the Film Club of the Air. My guests are Beth Accomando, Scott Marks and Anders Wright. And we move on to a movie called “Winter’s Bone.” In a setting of grim poverty in the Ozarks, a family mystery is unfolding. Ree Dolly’s father is missing. His court date is coming up, he can’t be found, and he’s put up the family’s rundown house for bail. So it’s up to teenager Ree to find out what happened to him, and she eventually does in a most unpleasant fashion. In this scene, Ree goes to the home of a powerful family in the area. Her father worked for them cooking meth. She wanders up to the house and is greeted by the matriarch of the family and Ree asks her if she can talk with Thump, her husband.
(audio of clip from the film “Winter’s Bone”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s a clip from “Winter’s Bone” and we heard Jennifer Lawrence there. She stars as Ree Dolly. The director is Debra Granik. Now, Scott, this film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. This is the kind of film that Sundance loves, isn’t it?
SCOTT MARKS (Emulsion Compulsion Film Critic): Yes. And I don’t – Sundance, to me, is the Academy Awards on a budget and that’s kind of what they’re turning into. This film establishes character and atmosphere as well as just about any other film I can think of. The dialogue is razor sharp. It’s just that I have a – my big problem with this film is that it has a false, tacked-on, happy ending that just did not work for me at all, and it destroys so much of what comes before it. But that said, the performances are great. This young actress is like Juliette Lewis in “Cape Fear.”
ANDERS WRIGHT (City Beat Film Critic): Umm-hmm.
MARKS: I mean, this girl is never out of the moment. She – It is a remarkable performance. And it’s a very, very good film up until a point and then it just kind of lost me.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, what do we know about the director, Debra Granik? Besides her fondness for movies with bone in the title? I think her last movie was called “Down to the Bone.”
BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Well, she hasn’t made that many films so it’s hard to draw a whole lot of conclusions about her but, I mean, she does – You know, for this film, she really wanted to get into the atmosphere and the location, and she insisted on going and shooting in Missouri and finding a real home to work in, to shoot at, and to use some of their clothes and to really ground it in that kind of reality. So, you know, so far she’s, I think, shown herself to be a very, you know, detailed driven director who wants to get into these kind of stories on a very nitty-gritty level.
CAVANAUGH: Anders, I wonder if you can describe the setting of this film. It’s, of course, a poor mountain community in the Ozarks. What does this world look like?
WRIGHT: It looks bleak. I mean, really, you know, the movie is called “Winter’s Bone” and just the sort of images that that produces, it’s just like that. It is cold and grimy and rundown and people have all sorts of junk in their yards. Ree’s siblings spend a lot of their time jumping on a sort of aged trampoline because there’s really just nothing else to do. People subsist on game and squirrels and really just sort of make their way as best they can. There’s nothing very nice about it. But I also think what she’s doing, she’s not trying to – There’s no pity for this community. It just sort of is where it is and these things are going on because of the way it is. Everyone sort of has their fingers involved in kind of smalltime criminal activities but only because there’s no other economic opportunity anywhere. And there’s very little law and order to be had. But there’s also no shame in that in terms of the people within the community. They just – this is how they live.
CAVANAUGH: Now some nonprofessional actors are involved in this production. Can you spot them, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: No, and I think that’s a good thing that you don’t. I mean, I think everybody’s well integrated into the story and I think that’s part of what makes it so good is that you feel that it’s very rooted in this real world and that the professional actors and the non-actors blend completely in the story. But when Anders was talking about the setting and about the getting the squirrels and stuff. I mean, one of the lines that, to me, kind of summed up a lot of what the mood and tone was, when they’re gutting the squirrel, the little brother asks, you know, do we eat the guts? And she says, not yet.
CAVANAUGH: I know, I – Yeah…
ACCOMANDO: And, you know, and that really kind of summed it up…
ACCOMANDO: …to say like, you know, we – we’ll go as far as we need to and when we hit a certain point and we have to go that one step further, we do it. And that’s just the way it is.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Scott, some reviewers—and I mentioned this in my intro—have been calling this a film noir set in the Ozarks. And you don’t really see that.
MARKS: It doesn’t – There’s nothing noir about this. When you said that I thought that you transposed this and the Lou Ford and “Killer Inside Me”…
MARKS: …because that’s definitely a film noir.
MARKS: I don’t see it. I mean, and do – do you guys see it?
WRIGHT: It’s – I mean, we’re – I mean, we’re getting to semantics to a certain point. I mean, it’s kind of a thriller. There’s certainly criminal involvement in it but it’s – You know, it’s really about this girl in these sort of desperate circumstances.
MARKS: But film noir, to me, is all about visual style. It’s not a genre. Film noir is not a genre.
MARKS: It’s a style like Italian neorealism or German expressionism.
CAVANAUGH: I think what the point was that these reviewers were making was that this wasn’t just a view into the life of these very poor people in this mountain community but there was actually a mystery going on.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think part of the problem is, is people always want to pigeonhole a film. They want to be able to describe it in a really short, simple way that wraps it up in a neat little package. They’ll say like, okay, this is a country noir film or something, somehow tags it with all these things that people can identify with and I think part of what makes this film good is that it doesn’t get neatly pigeonholed.
CAVANAUGH: One of the subtexts of this film is this drug culture that actually completely permeates this poverty-ridden community. What is the movie telling us about that, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Well, like – and Anders had already brought it up.
MARKS: Just say no.
ACCOMANDO: But Anders already brought up that, I mean, there is a lot of poverty there and there’s a lot of hopelessness in the sense of what kind of job prospects or life you have. So you take what – just like eating the squirrel guts, you do what you have to do to survive.
WRIGHT: If cook – Yeah, if cooking meth is the best way to like make money for your family, then people are going to cook meth.
ACCOMANDO: But, I mean, what I thought was really interesting about the film was the role that the women play in all this.
MARKS: There you go.
MARKS: I was just going to bring that up a couple…
ACCOMANDO: …because, I mean, there’s a point at which, I don’t think this is giving away too much, but there’s a point at which the women are the ones…
MARKS: Ahh, you… I don’t know.
WRIGHT: Yeah, that’s…
ACCOMANDO: The women are the ones who exercise some…
MARKS: Just remember the end of “Godfather III” what happens to Connie Corleone. That’s kind of what’s going on here. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: But – And the things that she has to do to kind of fulfill her quest. It’s dark and chilling. And I really appreciate the fact that the director handled all this in a very kind of low key, matter of fact manner. There’s no big music hits, there’s no flashy cutting or shaky camera, whatever. I mean, it’s just very blunt and matter of fact like, hey, this is how things are done.
MARKS: To its credit, this film tells you nothing but it shows you everything.
WRIGHT: Umm-hmm. Yeah.
MARKS: And that’s why I like it.
MARKS: You never judge these characters.
MARKS: And some of the dialogue in this film, there’s one line I wrote down. When – And I mean, this is one just abusive male character in there and he turns to his wife and said, I said shut up once already with my mouth.
CAVANAUGH: I know, I – Yeah, yeah.
MARKS: That’s all you have to say and you know…
MARKS: …everything about this character.
WRIGHT: Well, and he’s – that’s John Hawkes, the actor who’s like criminally underrated. He’s so good in everything he does, and he look – he’s kind of a weasely-looking guy. And he’s so good in this as this sort of wretched, horrible guy who eventually – it’s not that he has a turn of conscience, it’s that he’s – he finds himself having to deal with things that he doesn’t want to deal with. And…
CAVANAUGH: Some of our listeners might know John Hawkes from the HBO series “Deadwood.”
WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. And this actually – There’s a lot of sort of “Deadwood” feeling in it.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.
WRIGHT: I mean, the guy who plays Sheriff – the sheriff, Garrett Dillahunt also really cut his teeth there. They’re both – It’s got that – I mean, it is – it’s a razor’s edge of a movie, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: I want to go back to – Scott made the point of talking about the young actress Jennifer Lawrence. I want to get your take on her because her performance was really quite remarkable, wouldn’t you say, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah, she’s very good. She was seen earlier—was it last year in “Burning Plane?”
ACCOMANDO: But she’s very good. And, again, part of what works so well in this film is that nothing really calls attention to itself. It’s not a showy performance. It’s not something that really tries to draw attention. It’s about blending in and becoming a part of this environment. And I think that’s what she does well, all the other actors do well and the director does well, is it’s just this presentation of this environment and this world that really sucks you in and feels thoroughly authentic.
WRIGHT: And, you know, one of the things I really like about her performance is that, okay, she’s tough as nails, she’s totally flinty, she will stand up to anyone. But it’s also clear that she is 17. She is a kid. She does not have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination. And the things she’s dealing with are not things she wants to be dealing with. And, honestly, they’re things that her mother or father or someone else should be doing instead of her but…
ACCOMANDO: But she’s not tough because it’s like you see tough characters in some other films where it’s kind of an act or it’s part of, you know, what she thinks she needs to do to be cold, she’s only tough because she has to be.
ACCOMANDO: She – It’s the environment and things going on in her life that force her to do certain things and she’s driven to find her father because if she doesn’t they’re going to take the house and the land away and she – the kids’ll – her two siblings will be taken away and what will happen…
WRIGHT: It is cold there.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, and so she has to be hard as nails because…
ACCOMANDO: …there is no other choice for her.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talk…
MARKS: In too many films, and I hate when I see this, when in reel one you’ll see a prop or an object and you know this is going to come into play in reel four. In the very beginning, she goes to the high school and she sees the ROTC people, you know, they’re practicing, and then later on she becomes so desperate that she goes to enlist in the Army just to get the money to help bail her family out. This, to me, was incredibly realistic…
MARKS: …and also kind of a nice slap at the military without ever saying it, without ever pointing out that war is bad and whatever. I mean, this film just shows it to you. So…
WRIGHT: And that’s a terrific sequence, too. It’s full of action.
CAVANAUGH: It’s a wonderful scene because it doesn’t all go one way. I mean, that recruiter has a heart, too.
MARKS: Where you going to find a recruitment – I mean…
MARKS: …I want to…
MARKS: When I think of recruitment guys, I think of “Stripes.” You know, they will do anything to get you to enlist.
MARKS: They just, you know, it’s like a cop who writes tickets.
MARKS: They have a quota. This is not like that.
WRIGHT: Every – every scene in this movie is like that, where you think you see what’s going to happen, it doesn’t play out that way. That’s what’s…
MARKS: But why does it have to have a happy ending?
WRIGHT: It doesn’t have a happy ending.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, I wouldn’t call it happy.
MARKS: For this film, it’s a happy ending.
WRIGHT: It’s – But, again, you don’t see that hap – you don’t see it coming.
CAVANAUGH: Well, people can judge for themselves.
CAVANAUGH: “Winter’s Bone” opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas.
Companion viewing: "The Burning Plain," "Down to the Bone"