Debra Granik's Winter’s Bone explores American mountain people
Adaptation of Daniel Woodrell novel
Six years on from her debut feature, Debra Granik’s new film paints a very different portrait of modern America. Tom Dawson meets this careful and gifted filmmaker
The American film writer-director Debra Granik has just returned from visiting this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival and she’s recalling the films she managed to cram in between her promotional duties. ‘I loved Thundersoul, a documentary about an African-American high-school funk band in Houston, and also the Scottish shorts collection,’ she enthuses. ‘And I saw both the Soulboy films as well, the one in Africa and the one in Wigan. I was getting to see about three films a day, which was great.’
It was Granik’s digitally shot Winter’s Bone however, which turned out to be one of the standout achievements of the Festival. Set in the poverty-stricken Ozarks region of southern Missouri, it focuses on a 17-year-old girl, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who has to look after her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings. The teenager has been given just a week to track down her father, who has skipped bail on charges of dealing crystal meth: if she fails to find him, then the family home will be repossessed.
Winter’s Bone is adapted from a novel by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell (whose previous novel Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee into Ride with the Devil), and the 47-year-old Granik reveals that as soon as she began reading the book, ‘I knew it would make a good movie. Daniel writes in a very cinematic way and I found the character of Ree very compelling. I wanted to know how she dealt with each situation, and I kept asking myself, “Would I be able to do that?” and “What does it take to be that kind of person?”’
In the two years prior to shooting Winter’s Bone. Granik made frequent trips from her New York home to Missouri, in order to familiarise herself with potential locations and to gain the trust of local residents, several of whom she ended up casting in supporting roles. ‘It was crucial,’ she explains, ‘that the locals knew what the content of the story was, and understood that we weren’t city slickers doing an exploitative film about hillbillies.’
One of the most noticeable aspects about Granik’s film is that it resists simplistic categorisations: it’s simultaneously a coming-of-age thriller, a naturalistic character study, and a neo-realist portrait of a marginalised community. And it has the feel of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, in which its young blonde heroine Ree has to venture deep into the woods to complete her quest, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way. Ree is repeatedly warned, acknowledges the filmmaker, ‘to turn back, and the warnings get more hostile, to the point where violence is committed against her. And like in a fairy tale she has to bring back an emblem, an actual sign to show she has completed her task’.
Whilst Granik’s debut feature Down to the Bone also revolved around a beleaguered female character, she expects her next film, Rolling all the Time, to be more of an ensemble work. ‘It deals with the everyday lives of contemporary travelling musicians, who don’t aspire to being famous. Like Winter’s Bone it’s beautifully written, it’s just a question of whether it can come alive on the screen.’
Winter’s Bone, selected release Fri 17 Sep.