I was doing some consulting work the other day with some British film producers. We were discussing the state of independent film in America. It was quite a depressing conversation as you can imagine. Then the topic turned to Winter’s Bone. This brilliant adaptation from the Daniel Woodrell novel was written and directed by Debra Granik. It’s winning awards all over the world for its gritty portrayal of a young girl from the Ozark backwoods in search of her meth-cooking daddy. Why is it scoring so well worldwide with critics and audiences?
Ree Dolly, the protagonist in the film, played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence, refuses to be diverted from her quest to find her daddy no matter the obstacles. I was a reader for the studios for years and wrote script coverage for them. A common problem I found with young writers was: their protagonists whined a lot and didn’t do anything. A good protagonist is actively engaged throughout the entire film in some noble or ignoble pursuit. Why was Kick Ass so fun? Not because it was a comic book film featuring splatter gore. From the opening of the film, the main character is trying to make the world a better place, even when he fails miserably. In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly works tirelessly to accomplish her goal to provide a secure future for her invalid mother and two younger siblings.
Debra Granik, the writer/director of the film, delivers excellent storytelling. The film unwinds slowly and steadily at first as the audience acclimates to the backwoods, patriarchal structure of the rural Ozarks. The pacing then ramps up throughout the second act and explodes with a wonderful ending. The drama also builds as the conflict in the world increases. Like a child with a stick, Miss Ree stirs up hornets nests wherever she treks (mostly on foot) moving from dramatic scene to dramatic scene.
The world of the story is authentic, fresh and wonderfully elaborated. The best films give the audience a glimpse into fascinating subcultures, think Godfather, Casablanca, even Pulp Fiction. And the world of Winter’s Bone certainly fits that bill. Within every trailer lies a secretive, dangerous world filled populated with brooding, baleful characters. The dialogue is crisp and colloquial and helps lull the audience into Granik’s seedy world.
The casting and the performances are spot on. Nothing brings a small film like this one to grinding halt more quickly than a bad performance. My company was producing an independent comedy and one of the actors, a b-list actor, showed up completely smashed. The production had hired him for three days at $20,000 dollars a day. After the first day of mumbling, fumbling and all around poor acting, we fired him and paid him for a day’s worth of work. No such flubs exist in this film. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent, poised and patient in her performance. The supporting cast delivers as well, most notably, John Hawkes as Ree’s seething uncle.