When Debra Granik, the 47-year-old director of the searing drama "Winter's Bone," came of age in Bethesda and Silver Spring, Baltimore represented "this true place that had real neighborhoods and a phenomenal working-class history and port history."
She loved to visit relatives here. It made her wonder "what it would have been like to come from Baltimore." For a creative soul with a thirst for unsanitized experience, Baltimore was like a gritty anti-Shangri-la, alluring for its heady dose of risk and reality. "Even now I have all this curiosity about a state I never got to know," says Granik. "Instead, I got stuck with suburban- Washington neutrality."
She has been running from it ever since.
She treasures filmmaking partly "for the way it brings you to a close study of places you don't know." With her second movie, "Winter's Bone," based on Daniel Woodrell's transcendent novel, Granik digs deep into a clannish Ozarks culture. It's fueled by feuds and "crank" — the manufacture, sale and consumption of crystal meth.
What initially drew her to the novel was its heroine. Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old girl with the spunk and resilience of Mattie Ross in "True Grit." She must care for two young siblings and a helpless, addled mother. Her father has been charged for running a crystal-meth lab. Even worse, he has put up the family house for bail. Before his next court date, she must find his hideout or at least the location of his corpse.
Granik's moviemaking method is to harrow a story to its roots and immerse herself in its milieu. Woodrell suggested Marideth Sisco be her guide for "Winter's Bone." Sisco, a writer, radio essayist and folklorist, is the founder of the Elder Mountain Press, devoted to Ozarks culture and history. "She has a knowledge of historical relations there that goes back for generations," says Granik. She was critical to Granik's understanding of the southwestern Missouri hills.
At the top of the Dolly clan's pyramid is the formidable Thump Milton. But when he decrees that Ree be taught a lesson with a beating, his wife Merab and her sisters are the only ones who can deliver it. According to this tribe's tradition, no man can lay a hand on another man's wife or daughter.
After initial displays of brutal patriarchy, the story takes such surprising turns that a festival viewer asked Granik whether the Ozarks were "a matriarchy." No, not by a long shot. But Sisco helped Granik see that "when men's lives become extremely hard, women learn how to deal with them and assist them but also develop quiet systems of coping and managing." Even when men use verbal bluster and semi-physical threats, "the women know how to work with it. They have their own forms of negotiation."
Hearing Sisco's regular "picking sessions" with her friends inspired Granik to include her singing of regional songs. Granik says, "I thought it would be an error of omission not to show the music, one of the region's gems. It had to be played without getting treacly, as part of everyday life. But music does provide relief; it is a form of solace." Indeed, the music warms you to the marrow. It feeds the mix that makes this film chilling, gripping — and transporting.
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