December 19, 2018

Debra Granik cuts to the emotional bone with ‘Winter’s Bone’

Writer-director Debra Granik is Jewish, upper middle class and a New Yorker. So it is all the more remarkable that her thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” is so accurate in its depiction of life in the Ozarks that, in the words of one critic, “You can almost taste the fried squirrel.” The film has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Granik labored to move beyond “hillbilly” stereotypes to tell the story of Ree (played by Jennifer Lawrence, who received a best-actress nod), a 17-year-old from a meth-cooking clan who, in effect, becomes the heroine of a dark fairy tale. As the sole caretaker of her two younger siblings and severely depressed mother, Ree is stunned to learn at the beginning of the film that her father has disappeared after putting up the family property for his bail bond.

She embarks upon a dangerous quest to find him, dead or alive, lest she lose the land whose wildlife is often the source of her family’s meals. She remains stubbornly determined, even when her search puts her in grave danger at the hands of her menacing relatives.

In a recent phone conversation from her Manhattan home, Granik, 47, exuded an almost breathless intensity about how pressured she felt to depict her protagonists without any “Deliverance”-style sensationalism.

“I wanted to distinguish between poverty of the pocket and poverty of the mind — to show both how hard life was, and that people knew how to be fierce in the way they tackled it,” she said. “My hope is that once audiences get to know Ree and see her inside this [ramshackle] house that they may have judgments about, there will be an opening for the extension of compassion.”

Granik said she was “crestfallen” when the owner of the property where she was shooting questioned why “Winter’s Bone” had to depict the kind of meth use that has become a cliché about Southern Missouri. “I couldn’t put a disclaimer on the film stating that not every Ozarks family is struggling with addiction,” Granik recalls she told the woman. “But Ree’s family is, and she’s in pain because of it, and she wants it to stop.” The drama, after all, is based on the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, a native of the Missouri Ozarks who still lives there.

“Winter’s Bone” is not Granik’s first movie about a strong young woman in trouble. Her debut feature, “Down to the Bone” (2004), spotlighted a working-class mother (Vera Farmiga in a career-making role), struggling to break out of cocaine addiction.

 It wasn’t the drug abuse that drew Granik to these films, but rather her fascination with people who persevere. Granik traces this preoccupation to her own immigrant great-grandmother, who left a Lithuanian shtetl for the United States at 12 and who would have had a personal understanding of Ree’s rural poverty.

“I came into the world meeting this woman who was truly autonomous, although not all options had been open to her in life,” Granik said. “She was 4 feet tall, but there was nothing frail or dependent about this person.”

Granik, the daughter of a fair-housing litigator, experienced her own family’s financial ups and downs while growing up in Washington, D.C., and, as a Jew, she said, “I know it’s part of the fabric of life to worry. 

“But for me, worry means caring,” she added. “I’m prone to feeling very worried about other people’s fates; whether things are too hard or whether they can in fact survive.” 

“Down to the Bone” began when Granik chanced to strike up a conversation with a housekeeper at an upstate New York inn some years ago. “I realized very quickly that she was in the throes of something very intense: trying to get sober for the first time in her life, and that had a very suspenseful quality to it,” Granik said. “The whole bus ride home, I kept thinking, ‘Will this woman be able to do it, and what would that take?’ ”

After the success of her debut feature, Granik and her creative partner, Anna Rossellini, were inundated with scripts about damaged, helpless young women — so it was refreshing to read Woodrell’s novel about Ree, a tough Alice in a rural Wonderland.

The filmmaker traveled six times to the Ozarks over three years to get the details just right, although the locals were initially wary and Granik had her own fears of how these Bible Belt residents might respond to her as a Jew. Call it leftover anxiety from her childhood Holocaust education: Granik prefers to circumvent preconceived notions before revealing her heritage. She need not have worried in this case: Whenever her background did come up, residents proved respectful. 

In order to avoid sensationalizing the region’s socioeconomic problems, the director sought to bring out the lyricism and spirituality that exists alongside the poverty. Through her eyes, the act of hanging laundry becomes a “gentle, caretaking action,” and a yard punctuated by abandoned vehicles with weeds growing through the engine blocks, transforms into an enchanted garden.  

Granik also agonized over how to depict the violence so crucial to the story: Ree’s beating at the hands of her female relatives, as well as a chilling scene in which those relatives finally lead her to her father’s dead body. On a lake in the moonlight, the women wield a chainsaw to sever his hands — proof of his demise for the bail bondsman. 

“The actresses didn’t try to get into the psychology or to amp up their emotions to any kind of hysteria; they approached it as a task — a completely overwhelming and heinous task, but a task nevertheless,” Granik said.

“That was extremely helpful, because I realized the [scene] wasn’t about eliciting the hugest emotions possible, it was about survival — about getting through whatever is put before you in life.”