AUTHENTICITY AND THE OZARKS-
(Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE)
by Tom Beaver
The Sundance Film Festival has been much praised in Independent cinema circles and sometimes criticized (some question the “Independent” part) since its genesis in 1978. Like all entities started with the best of intentions- it has underwent some significant changes over the years to insure its own survival. It is difficult to overlook the corporate slogans and various advertisements that precede each film during the run of the festival every January. The irony is palpable when the concept of “Independent” is effortlessly meshed with a phrase like “Sponsored by Sprint”. But it should be noted, that in a day and age that is inundated with ethical compromise, this can hardly be shocking (although it was, to a degree, for me) when seated in the comfort of a theatre to view one of the chosen movies at the festival. One tends to work hard to justify that which is somewhat unjustifiable. This is surely the nature of the human animal. And there are very specific reasons that the universe calls in order such compromises- but we shan’t go there in this writing…
I attended the festival this last January with a group of friends and saw a film that was completely unknown to me prior to viewing. I had no previous knowledge, warnings, or recommendations from anyone whatsoever. My friends and I entered the theatre happily because we managed to get in the screening (we had not bought any tickets to see films and were at the mercy of waiting lists/no-shows/etc.). We were blank slates and there was no way we could have known that the movie we were about to see would win the Grand Jury Prize (the top film honor) at Sundance.
As the film begins, a strange and haunted song delivered in the melancholy voice of a female plays over images of small children bouncing on an old trampoline outside a weathered structure- a dwelling that is more of a shack or a shed than a proper home. As the narrative unfolded- it became increasingly apparent that the film took place in the Ozark region of the state of Missouri (the “Show-me-state”, where myself and some of my other friends are from). When the film ended there was a silence followed by a Q and A with the director and co-screenwriter, Debra Granik and the film’s cinematographer, Michael McDonough.
WINTER’S BONE is an adaptation of the novel (of the same title in 2006) written by Missouri native, Daniel Woodrell. Debra Granik adapted the screenplay with Anne Rosselini.
The film follows a teenage protagonist named Ree (played with raw intelligence by Jennifer Lawrence) and her search for her father who has disappeared throwing the future of the family home into peril. She learns early on that no one is going to aid her in her search because of the severely guarded methamphetamine culture her father and others are mixed up in. Ree has to rely on her own wits and intelligence and strength to pull her through the labyrinth of eerie hillbillies that envelop her journey. And they are eerie. The only method of communication the backwoods inhabitants of this film seem to employ is one of constant assurance that their various secrets and baffling codes of conduct remain untainted by any sane individual. And the only sane individual in the story is Ree, a girl of seventeen who is wise (and growing wiser with each frame of the film) beyond her years. We learn that these Ozark citizens have their own strict and primitive ways of dealing with life. Each time Ree confronts one of them she is met with rigid opposition. Her missing father should REMAIN missing. Nothing is to be questioned, nothing is to be overtly examined, nothing is to be revealed for what it truly may be- which is to say- a tragedy.
As Ree navigates this bleak landscape (extremely well photographed by McDonough) of bare trees, curious squirrels, relics decaying in people’s yards, and meth abusing sociopaths, she develops a force of will that will see her through to the film’s end. She’s a ship with no foreseen stops until she uncovers the mystery of her father’s disappearance in order to save her family’s future. She is her father’s sacrifice. And it is only when she aligns with her father’s older brother that she becomes anchored and tuned in to her own salvation. And make no mistake about it, Teardrop, played with virtuoso acting skill by Mr. John Hawkes (of DEADWOOD fame), is the unquestionable anchor of the movie’s fine narrative. He is the eye of the storm. Teardrop is as complex a character as you are ever going to find gracing an American film. He is a slight man with a meth addiction and one of the many facets of Hawkes’ brilliant interpretation, is he manages to make the character terrifying regardless of his frame. Ree regards Teardrop with extreme caution (“You always did scare me” she says to him in one scene, his reply- “That’s because you’re smart.”). And like many contradictory and unexamined souls- we learn that Teardrop is not entirely a bad man.
It is rare to see a film that is this preoccupied with authenticity and precision. The locales, the characters, the clothes, the jargon- all of these elements are honestly portrayed with acute objectivity. Debra Granik’s direction is light and freeing, allowing the actors to sink into these stubborn and dangerous creatures. Jennifer Lawrence earns her place as one of the leading young actresses in film today, John Hawkes MUST be Academy Award nominated for his role, and the supporting players (Garret Dillahunt as the insecure sheriff and Dale Dickey as the queen bee of the hillbilly hive) provide fine nervous systems for the internal structure of the story.
WINTER’S BONE is a fascinating, dark, unconventional film with moments of genuine inspiration and true insight. One can only hope we see more of this type of film in the near future- whether it be at Sundance- or in the multiplex- or in the art houses across America. It will forever be a joy to recall that the one film my dear friends and I saw at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was this original piece (I actually saw one other film- but I refuse to mention the details of that mess while admiring Granik’s work in this writing…).
And if being sponsored by Honda or McDonalds or Disneyland or BP is what it takes to keep the festival running that showcases such craftsmanship in cinema- so be it. I suppose such compromises can and must eventually wield original works.
In spite of the compromise, and ultimately-
“Independent” of the compromise in its own unique and special way.