This one’s going to be a close call. An excellent film made from a book that’s also terrific.
I speak to you of Winter’s Bone. If you aren’t hip to it, get ready to add another favorite to both your reading and viewing lists — it holds up to the scrutiny of repeated exposures.
Winter’s Bone began its life as Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 “hillbilly noir” of the same name. The New York Times described it as “serious as a snakebite, with a plot that seems tight enough to fit on the label of a package of chew.” After Debra Granik and producer/cowriter Anne Rosellini finished their film Down to the Bone, they contacted the author Daniel Woodrell, who knew what to expect since he was a fan of their low-budget style. He ended up liking the movie enough to attend the Oscars in support.
Immersive and arduous in its authenticity, Winter’s Bone was shot entirely on location in the Ozarks. Jennifer Lawrence (yeah her) was discovered for this role. She quickly had to learn to fight, skin squirrels, chop wood, and breathe the role of Ree Dolly, a teen with a junkie mom, younger siblings she cares for, and a missing dad. Dad’s dead. No mystery there. She needs to produce the body to prove it. The rest of the book (and film) are devoted to this.
The reason one synopsis works for both book and movie is that Winter’s Bone is an excruciatingly faithful adaptation. There is little left out from the book in the film. And what is excised adds to the overall effect. Let’s examine one scene to pinpoint the power of film to economically communicate. Ree has been warned for about 47 minutes to stop looking for her daddy. A variety of lowlifes have tried to scare her off. She asks one final time. Coffee is thrown in her face and she is dragged by her hair into a barn.
What follows is suggested. A pregnant, lengthy shot from far away distances the viewer from the barn and the horror inside. We imagine much worse than she bears. This technique of implied action (often used in horror films) is a very effective way to make a viewer ill-at-ease and imagine the worst. The next shot is a blurry pan (from Ree’s point of view) of a variety of rusty tools hanging from the barn’s ceiling. One asks “what’re we gonna do with you.” as in the novel, she defiantly answers “kill me.” What’s left out is any indication of her fouling her pants…which the book details no less than 3 times.
What else does Granik leave out of this heavily-awarded film? She merely suggests the bond between Ree and her closest friend, in favor of painting a portrait of female strength in an isolated area ravaged by meth. But all out of respect to the story, to our protagonist: ”Ree’s a folk hero…She’s the kind you sing a ballad about.”