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Ethnographic Thriller – Winter’s Bone at Berlinale Forum

Winter’s Bone
Debra Granik, USA
2010, 100 min
International Premiere

16 February 2010
Delphi Filmpalast, Berlin

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Ree), John Hawkes (Teardrop), Kevin Breznahan (Little Arthur), Dale Dickey (Merab), Garret Dillahunt (Sheriff Baskin), Sheryl Lee (April), Lauren Sweetser (Gail), Tate Taylor (Satterfield)

“It ain’t much, but it’s all we have.”

Winner of two independent juries’ prizes at this year’s Berlinale, Winter’s Bone is the unflinching telling of a Ozark Mountain girl’s desperate quest to keep her family intact by finding a father who vanished after posting their home as bond.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the sole support of her younger brother and sister and mentally ill mother, is a classic film heroine who when up against impossible odds won’t take no for an answer. Dead or alive, she must find her meth-cooking father, defying a near-cultic criminal syndicate that manufactures, supplies, and supports crank culture in the Ozarks.

Based on a novel by David Woodrell and set on location in Christian and Taney counties in southwest Missouri, Winter’s Bone uses experienced actors in the lead roles and local actors and residents for most of the secondary parts. Dale Dickey is electric in the role of Merab, wife and gatekeeper to the local crime lord. John Hawkes shows unexpected tenderness and loyalty as Ree’s fearsome, addicted uncle. And Jennifer Lawrence inhabits the lead role with hardscrabble grit and enduring vulnerability as she tries to see her brother and sister through their own childhoods.

After several scouting trips to the area, and with help from local guides to one of the North America’s more exotic and dangerous locations, cinematographer Michael McDonough and production crew manage to skirt hillbilly cliche in settings of meth labs, run-down farms, and honky tonks. Director Debra Granik:

“In any life with limited resources, the prevalence of destructive substances like crystal meth, and what that does to families; the general climate of violence, deceit and callousness, is painful to discuss, and even harder to include in a movie. From moonshine to marijuana to methamphetamine, marginal economies can easily run over a culture and violently corrupt it. Who wants to take this on? But add to the challenge the fact that moonshine and meth are gasoline on the bonfire of clichés depicting mountain culture.

“Mountain culture has been a subject of fascination in American film since the early days of silent cinema. Mountain regions have a history of outsiders representing them monolithically. The term hillbilly is often used against hill culture, and usually doesn’t allow for much nuance. References to bootlegging and feuds come up pretty fast after the term hillbilly. You can’t go to an area with such an intense history and lore and not lock horns with symbols, clichés, stereotypes, and sensitivities. And it’s a challenge to navigate to some form of storytelling that chips away at the stereotypes and adds some new details to what’s gone before.”

In one expert nighttime composition, Ree waits in her uncle’s truck while he engages the opposition with some calculated violence, an American flag darkly reflected in windshield. In the Q&A, the largely German audience was particularly interested in a scene at a livestock auction. The rhythmic chant of the auctioneer was unknown to most, and there was some discussion of whether the man was singing or speaking, and what he was doing.

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