Debra Granik has given the movie-going public a damn good adaptation of a great book. In fact, the Nerd would argue that she did about as good a job as could ever be expected with her impeccable source material: Daniel Woodrell’s fucking ridiculously read-that-shit-right-fucking-now book Winter’s Bone. If I hadn’t read the book already I would probably tell you that it is the movie to beat this summer. But since I have read the book and am working through my feelings about this adaptation, I’ve gotta say I’ve got some reservations, though I think Granik’s changes were probably wise ones.
For the uninitiated (and, you know, the Nerd advises that you fucking initiate yourself with the book toot-fucking-sweet), let me give your ass a heads up on what this shit’s about. It’s the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old girl taking care of her two younger siblings and catatonic mother on what little money she can scrounge. One day the sheriff stops by and says that her old man Jessup has a court date coming up for meth cooking charges and he can’t seem to find the man anywhere. Thing is, Jessup put the house and their timber acres up for bail and if he doesn’t show, Ree and her family are homeless. Now it’s up to Ree to venture into the hills of the Ozarks and ask her dangerous kinsmen, the infamous Dolly clan, for help rooting out her no-account father.
Granik does a ton of shit beautifully in the adaptation. The location work is flawless, neither too depressingly redneck nor cheekily cornpone. Everybody is cast expertly, with great turns by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree (The Bill Engvall Show starring that unfunny Blue Collar Comedydouche named, unsurprisingly, Bill Engvall),Dale Dickey as Merab (who you’ll remember as Spooge’s Woman in Breaking Bad or Patty the Daytime Hooker in My Name is Earl), John Hawkes as Teardrop (Sol Star from Deadwood), and Garret Dillahunt as Sheriff Baskin (Francis Wolcott/Jack McCall in Deadwood). Granik also wisely sticks very closely to the book story-wise, even adding some interesting scenes that help illustrate shit you could only get from prose in the book, like scenes of Ree watching the ROTC kids practicing marching in the high school gym to show how her ticket out of the Ozarks is literally right in front of her.
But folks who’ve read the book know that there’s a certain heightened reality at play in the novel. Ree is not just tough, she’s larger-than-life. The dialogue is not just colorful, it’s either fucking straight-up hilarious or dead-on powerful. Ree is not just investigating her father’s disappearance, she’s on an odyssey into a strange and wonderful world. Winter’s Bone the novel is fucking mythic.
Instead of trying to achieve this haunting, wonderful lyricism that drips from every page of this spare and wonderful book, Granik has given us something closer to neo-realism than anything else. She shoots with great immediacy, often with a hand-held camera, and the color scheme of the movie is rarely anything but cool grays and blues. Many of the incisive lines of dialogue found in the book appear in the film, but they are often surrounded by mumbly and more earth-bound turns of phrase, some of it probably improvisational. Granted, it would have been tougher – if not impossible – to capture the heightened sense of the book without descending into treacly bullshit magic, but the movie never really comes very close to finding that surge of transcendence you get from reading the novel. In the climax we almost get there (the climax inherently begs for comparisons to The Odyssey), but mostly the movie is just content to be a strong story fairly realistically told.
But part of what many people forget when discussing Woodrell’s work is the sense of fun to be had. Even in his most depressing works (like his masterpiece Tomato Red) there are scenes of absolute joy, a sense that, yeah, it’s tough to live in the dirt-poor meth-riddled Ozarks, but goddamn if we don’t know how to whoop it up now and again. Granik’s very sober version of Winter’s Bone is a fucking good movie that I’d recommend to damn near everyone, but you better believe I’ll beg them to get drunk on the book beforehand.