Life is stripped bare in Granik’s ‘Winter’s Bone’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Sebastian MlynarskiDebra Granik earned the Grand Jury Prize and a screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival for "Winter's Bone."

ASPEN – Debra Granik’s first feature film, which won her the award for best director at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, was titled “Down to the Bone.” After a six-year wait, Granik has returned with “Winter’s Bone,” which extends the winning streak; the movie, which was released in June and opens Friday in Aspen and Carbondale, earned the Grand Jury Award for best dramatic film as well as a screenwriting award at Sundance this year.

Granik doesn’t make too much of the repetition of the word ‘bone’ in her two movies to date. Part of that has to do with the fact that the title of the second film was not hers; that ‘bone’ came from Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the novel that the film was adapted from. Granik calls it a coincidence.

But Granik is well into the process of making her next movie, an adaptation of the 1995 novel by Russell Banks. The title? “Rule of the Bone.” Granik, a high-energy and engaging 47-year-old, casually refers to the career-starting threesome of films as “The Bone Trilogy.”

But it doesn’t take much to see that there is something substantial behind the recurrence of the word in the titles. The bone is what’s left after everything else has been stripped away. Bones are hard and enduring. They are essential.

And certainly these are descriptions that apply to Granik’s first two films. They are about lives that have been reduced to the last bits, lives that have come down to the effort merely to survive – bare-bones existences, you could call them. They are about characters who are resourceful, willing to fight to the end.

“Down to the Bone” starred Vera Farmiga as a woman struggling mightily to manage her drug addiction, her failing marriage and an affair well enough to take care of what matters most, her two children. “Winter’s Bone” focuses on Ree, a 17-year-old with her own weighty issues: a catatonic mother, two younger siblings, and, most pressing, a father who has disappeared.

“What would it take to make a change, to prevail, just to survive?” Granik said from her apartment near Union Square in Manhattan, of the essential issue she has explored in her films. “When life is down to the bone” – that word again – “scraping the bone” – and again – “it’s, How will this person do it? That affects me strongly. No one is giving these people the exact way of how to survive.”

Granik says she grew up with all the physical comforts of ’70s suburbia. But perhaps because of which suburbs she was raised in – outside Washington, D.C. – she was pushed into an emotional discomfort by the Vietnam War.

“I became a questioner at a very young age,” she said. “Despite how your parents handled it, there was an understanding that something huge and heavy had to be questioned. Questions like how people make their way became a prevailing source of interest and wonder.”

In “Winter’s Bone,” survival is no abstract matter. Ree’s father hasn’t merely gone missing; he is a fugitive from the law, who has put the family house up as collateral for his bail bond. If she can prove her father has died, the house is safe – but establishing death means finding out how he died, and that involves questions that don’t go ever well in this insular corner of the Missouri woods that has been taken over by the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine. Still, Ree – the name might as well be short for ‘resourceful’ – stands up to drug kingpins and crank addicts, cops and bail bondsmen, and her own neighbors and family members.

What makes this dreary landscape sparkle as cinema is not only Ree’s determination, but the complex nature of the characters around her. The people who bully and threaten her clearly don’t want to; they know Ree and understand her situation. But they are, in their own way, as downtrodden as Ree herself. They have their own survival to consider. The finest example is Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, a chillingly complex character played brilliantly by John Hawkes.

“It’s the most important thing: and. Teardrop can be volatile and gnarly – and you see other sides,” Granik said. “Any time the mystery of compassion is peeked into, it causes you to know characters are capable of many things.”

In “Winter’s Bone,” that duality extends to regional issues. Ree may be financially impoverished – but she also has a relationship with her environment, built up over generations on the land, that allows her to survive.

“There’s an ‘and’ in this condition of poverty,” Granik said. “You understand how important it is for the family to have that land, that they know how to hunt wild game if there’s no cash. There’s no dependence on urban life and infrastructure, on outside forces. There’s a pride of place. It’s amazing how little urban people in America know about that rural heartland.”

I asked Granik if she could see doing an about-face after these first three films – “Rule of the Bone” is about a teenage dropout, and involves sexual abuse and drug use – and tell a story that was lighter in tone. She began explaining that she has an appreciation for British humor based on class; that humor is essential to storytelling; that she didn’t care to make broad, quintessentially American comedies along the lines of “The Hangover.”

In the end, however, it seems like the closest Granik could come to humor were brief moments of playfulness; for illustration, she offers the scene of Ree’s siblings jumping on a trampoline.

“It’s not absurd, big humor, but lyrical, the resourcefulness of young humans. They have access to play,” she said. “For a film to be digestible, it has to have humor. And hope as well. Humor is the route to hope.”

For Granik, humor – or at least lightheartedness – is the reward for having survived the torment. In “Rule of the Bone,” which is still in the development stage, she points out that there is an uplifting ending, but only after the protagonist – named Bone – has made it through the storm.

“I think the way he escapes things, ultimately, makes it lighthearted,” she said. “It didn’t come easy to him. If he ends up in a good place, it’s because he earned it. He looked with soul at his existence and choices. You’d feel a sense of release and pleasure that he made it through.”