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The bleak world of ‘Winter’s Bone’

Carrying firearms. Chopping wood for fuel. Eating deer stew for dinner. Gathering your kith and kin together for a folk-music jam session.

In certain parts of contemporary America, these activities wouldn’t register as unusual. But to a self-described liberal, East Coast, upper-class person like director Debra Granik, the world she set out to depict in the new film “Winter’s Bone” might as well have been a foreign country.

“I did not have a connection to that region,” Granik said recently, speaking of the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where her tautly poetic drama takes place. Although she didn’t expect the area to be “exotic,” she said, “my imagination had one thing, but I was conjuring something that felt more like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ ”

Adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, the bleak narrative world of “Winter’s Bone” has little in common with the homespun coziness of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. But it does share one key element: an indelible, intrepid young heroine.

In “Winter’s Bone,” that would be Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a fiercely determined 16-year-old who’s stoically bearing the weight of an invalid mother, two clingy younger siblings and a ne’er-do-well father who has jumped bail on charges of cooking crystal meth. If Ree can’t somehow find her missing dad before his court date, the impoverished family will lose its home to a bondsman.

With only her wits to guide her, and a clutch of suspicious neighbors and edgy relatives, including her cagey uncle Teardrop ( John Hawkes), barring her path, Ree sets off on a search for identity that also will be a journey into her community’s darkest places, its clannish rules of conduct and scarring rites of passage.

The modestly budgeted independent film, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters Friday.

Although rarely portrayed in mass commercial culture — let alone with empathy and discernment — the small-town Ozark environs of “Winter’s Bone” are rich in a folklore and a distinctive language that the movie strives to capture.

The Missouri-born Woodrell writes often about his native turf, and his fictional locales have drawn critical comparisons with Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.Critics have praised his prose for elevating his all-American settings and characters to the level of Greek tragedies in a way that has reminded reviewers of Cormac McCarthy ( “No Country for Old Men”) and Charles Frazier (“Cold Mountain”).

But according to Granik, it wasn’t so much ancient mythic themes as stark modern realities that inspired Woodrell to envision Ree’s story.

“He didn’t start from ‘Antigone,’ ” Granik said, referring to Sophocles’ classic about a king’s daughter intent on burying her disgraced brother. Instead, he discovered the novel’s inspiration in a local convenience store, where he observed a young woman with two small children, trying to feed her family on $7. “He couldn’t tell from the back if she was the mom or the older sister. And he started to just postulate and wonder about her life.”

Granik’s personal pedigree hardly could be further from that of the characters in “Winter’s Bone.”

A child of the anonymous Washington, D.C., suburbs, granddaughter of broadcasting pioneer Theodore Granik and graduate of Brandeis University, Granik always has been fascinated with strongly rooted people and places. Her 2004 breakout feature film, “Down to the Bone,” which spotlighted the emerging talent of Vera Farmiga ( George Clooney’s bedmate in “Up in the Air”), takes place in remote upstate New York, another area that lies far outside the New York-L.A. pop-culture production center.

Making “Winter’s Bone,” Granik said, prompted her to examine and, in some cases, change her own attitudes on several issues, including firearms, hunting and even dietary habits (she’s a vegetarian).

She began immersing herself in the locale with help from the Missouri Film Commission and Woodrell, who put her in touch with a regional historian-folklorist and introduced her to the sheriff in the town where he lives. Making their base camp in the tourist city of Branson, the film crew gradually began to make contacts and find locations among the area’s hills and hollows.

Local residents, some of whom ended up being cast in secondary parts, helped the crew learn the mechanics of skinning a squirrel, crafting a bluegrass banjo line and other skills that can be advantageous to the art of survival, whether physically, economically or culturally.

Granik and her writing partner, Rosellini, hewed closely to the novel’s structure and savored the regional dialogue, which she said possesses “an off-handed poetry.”

“Many of the phrases are so economical. I would love to be able to speak like that sometimes. Not that they’re snippy or snide, but they’re just so precise,” she said, citing one of her favorites: “risin’ above your raisin’.’ ”

Even the word “hillbilly,” she discovered, is a complicated, “multivalent” term that locals use to describe themselves both proudly and self-deprecatingly.

For Lawrence and Hawkes, the imaginative leap wasn’t quite as formidable. Lawrence, who was raised until adolescence in Louisville, Ky., said she already knew most of the dialogue’s colorful colloquialisms. Ree’s accent, she said, came as naturally to her as her personality.

Asked what she thought keeps Ree persevering through hardship, Lawrence answered immediately: “She doesn’t have a choice.”

“Just like me chasing Debra all the way to New York to get the part,” continued the 19-year-old, who first impressed indie audiences two years ago with preternaturally self-possessed turns in Lori Petty’s “The Poker House” and Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain.”

“I didn’t see not getting the role. I had to get it. It was just like Ree. She had to get it done, and she had to keep the house and she had to chop the wood to keep the house going. She has a strength that I would love to possess and that a lot of people would love to possess of just not seeing failure.”

Like “Down to the Bone,” “Winter’s Bone” touches on the grim subject of addiction. Hawkes, a small-town Minnesota native whose weathered good looks and aura of gritty authenticity earned him a part as one of Clooney’s doomed shipmates in “The Perfect Storm,” said he prepared for “Winter’s Bone” by reading Woodrell’s book and a true-crime account of a meth-related murder.

He also listened to dialect tapes and read interviews with people struggling with various stages of meth dependency. Then, working with the crew’s makeup artist, he tried to bring some of those physical ravages to his face and body.

At the same time, Hawkes said, he didn’t want Teardrop’s character to be overly defined by his drug habit.

“Sometimes, I try to distill the story into a couple of key words,” Hawkes said. “And in talking to Debra it came out I thought the story was really about, in the broadest sense, about courage, about a young woman’s courage to be willing to die every day, actually, and to try to fight to literally save her family and all they have, which is land.

“So the words that I hit on were nerve and blood. ‘Blood nerve’ I would always say to Debra. Blood meaning literal blood and blood meaning your relatives and your kin and the people closest to you. And nerve having to do with the literal viscera within your body and also the nerve of her to do the things that the older mentors of the culture tell her not to do.”

While critics will weigh in on “Winter’s Bone” in coming weeks, Hawkes said the audience he would “most want to please or most want to be proud” of the film are the residents of the Ozarks.

Besides telling a good story, Granik hopes the movie may change a few minds about a unique corner of America that seldom gets the rest of the country’s attention.

“Stereotypes are convenient,” she said. “And yet within them, everyone will say, there’s something that, you know, they don’t come for no reason. It’s just that it takes time to explore complexity.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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