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Hillbillies, drugs and Katniss Everdeen: A review of “Winter’s Bone”

Nominated for two Academy Awards and winner of the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” ranks among the top films to come out of Sundance in recent years.

Adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, the film follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her struggle to provide for her mentally ill mother and younger siblings in the fallout of her father’s disappearance. Her father is out on bail following his arrest for manufacturing “crank” (methamphetamine), and is soon scheduled to appear in court. Ree is told that if he does not show up for his court date, her family will lose their home. Determined to ensure a hopeful future for her siblings, Ree sets out to find her father in a family- and drug-centered culture of southern Missouri.

The film opens with a wide shot of the landscape. Rolling hills of green and grey overlook a valley of mobile homes and rusted vehicles, with a lone, naked tree resting in the foreground. An a cappella rendition of “The Missouri Waltz” is sung as Ashlee and Sonny Dolly play outside on their trampoline. Ree hangs laundry out to dry and repairs Ashlee’s baby doll before calling her siblings to come inside. The sequence ends with the words, “Winter’s Bone” superimposed on a silhouette of barren trees.

Filmed entirely on location in Missouri’s Christian and Taney Counties, the opening act of “Winter’s Bone” captures the ruggedness of its setting. While not everyone who views the film will be familiar with Missouri’s Ozark region, most southern viewers will recognize the rural and impoverished neighborhoods depicted and the hillbilly archetype of the film’s characters. This is largely due to Granik’s desire for an authentic setting. She and her crew ventured six times to southern Missouri during pre-production, taking notes and seeking out local guides for assistance. Three families in Forsyth, Mo. allowed Granik and her crew to use their homes as sets for the film, and very little was altered to the families’ property during production.

The people of Christian and Taney Counties were as vital to the film’s authenticity as the location itself. Local residents such as William White, Ashlee Thompson and Isaiah Stone contributed their accents and knowledge of the culture to their roles of Blond Milton, Ashlee Dolly and Sonny Dolly respectively. Other Missouri natives added improvised dialogue for their characters, one being Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, who plays Thump Milton in the film.

The meth capital of the United States serves as the cultural backdrop for the narrative of “Winter’s Bone.” As depicted in the film, family ties and regional loyalties govern the more remote areas of southern Missouri. While Granik shows the impact that meth manufacturing has on a local community, she avoids depicting drug use in a negative or positive light in the film.

The portrayal of drug use in film has gone through several phases over the last century, fluctuating and evolving with changing attitudes about the topic in the surrounding culture. Drugs frequently appeared in silent films during the 1900s. By the 1930s however, the portrayal of drugs on screen became almost universally negative due to shifts in federal law and popular perception.

The hippie movement of the 60s and 70s made its mark on the big screen; with drug use more frequently appearing on film. “Easy Rider” in 1969 brought the 60s counter-culture to the mainstream through the positive portrayal of LSD and marijuana. Influenced by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s war on drugs, films from the “Just Say No” era once again brought the anti-drug stance into the limelight.

After decades of alternating between two main viewpoints, modern cinema has settled on a more neutral depiction of drug use. Films such as Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” use drugs to tell a compelling story without pushing a positive or negative agenda. “Winter’s Bone” takes a similar approach.

“He cooks crank,” Ree says to her cousin Megan.

“They all do now. You don’t need to say it out loud,” Megan replies.

The film’s dialogue and character interactions reveal that the community’s drug problem is acknowledged simply as the way things are. Ree’s Uncle Teardrop casually snorts crystal meth in front of her twice in the film; the second time with a cigarette in his other hand. Little Arthur asks Ree if she “want’s a line” or if she would like to “blow some smoke” when she asks him about her father’s whereabouts. When she refuses, he bangs his hands down on his coffee table and tells her that he has nothing else to offer. Even Ree herself, despite avoiding the use of crank, still understands that it is at the core of her family’s identity and the society in which she was raised.

Granik seems to enjoy telling stories that use drug addiction as a key component. Her first feature film, “Down to the Bone,” like “Winter’s Bone,” neutrally depicts drug use while showing the impact it has on a young woman’s life. Both protagonists hit rock bottom in each film, but, like Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” franchise, persevere to overcome their respective struggles.

In fact, Gary Ross, director of “The Hunger Games,” was interested in Lawrence for the role of Katniss because of her breakout performance in “Winter’s Bone.” Fans of the young adult dystopian films will undoubtedly fall in love with Ree, as her characterization strongly resembles that of the girl on fire.

The brilliance of “Winter’s Bone” is found in its simplicity. Woodrell’s novel told Granik and her team where to go and they went, crafting an authentic mise-en-scène for the film along the way. Within this setting, Granik tells the relatable story of a young woman who loves her family; who goes the distance to save her home. With another feature film in the works with “bone” in the title, we certainly haven’t seen the last of Debra Granik. Her meticulous direction coupled with Lawrence’s performance is where “Winter’s Bone” shines.