When the Academy Awards are presented March 4, it will be a high-profile evening for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The tale of a grieving Ozarks mother who takes her sorrow to extremes is up for seven awards, including nominations for best picture and Frances McDormand as best actress.
The movie also has provided yet another shot of exposure for the Ozarks. “Three Billboards” represents at least the fourth portrayal of the Ozarks in popular movies, TV shows and books in recent years — all of them tales exploring the dark side of life.
The Netflix hit series “Ozark” was released last year and is still popular on the streaming service. It stars Jason Bateman as a Chicago financial planner and money launderer who moves with his family to the Lake of the Ozarks, where all sorts of calamities befall them.
“Gone Girl,” the 2012 best-selling novel by Kansas City native Gillian Flynn, became a hit 2014 movie and earned a best actress Oscar nomination for Rosamund Pike. The tale about a man who becomes a murder suspect when his wife goes missing is set mostly in the fictional river town of North Carthage, Mo., but a significant portion of the action occurs in the Ozarks.
Both of these built on the success of “Winter’s Bone,” Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel inhabited by Ozarks meth dealers. It was turned into a critically acclaimed 2010 movie that was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.
Now comes “Three Billboards,” which already has earned four Golden Globe Awards.
“I’m excited to see all this film and literature about Missouri,” Columbia author Laura McHugh said. “I grew up here, and there was never anything other than Mark Twain and ‘Shepherd of the Hills.’ I’m excited to see my state featured in all these things.”
“Winter’s Bone” could be considered the genesis of a genre called Ozarks Noir, which features dark, crime-infused tales set in the hills and forests of rural Missouri. It is certainly the purest example: written by an author who grew up in the Ozarks and still lives there, set in the region and translated into a movie that was filmed on location.
By contrast, “Ozark” was filmed in Georgia, although its creator, Bill Dubuque, worked as a teen at a family-owned resort at Lake of the Ozarks.
“Three Billboards” is set in a fictional Ozarks town populated by supposed rural Missouri folks, but it doesn’t have its roots in Missouri. It was written and directed by British/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and filmed in North Carolina.
Still, with its Missouri setting and its dark story, “Three Billboards” is treading a landscape that has become increasingly popular, especially in the literary world.
Woodrell had been writing what he called “Country Noir” books set in the Ozarks for 10 years before “Winter’s Bone,” including “Give Us a Kiss” (1996), “Tomato Red” (1998) and “The Death of Sweet Mister” (2001). (“Tomato Red” was turned into a 2017 movie, but the setting was moved from Missouri, and the film was shot in Canada.)
And if Woodrell is the father of Ozark Noir, then McHugh is one of its proudest offspring.
Her first novel was the critically acclaimed “The Weight of Blood.” Like “Winter’s Bone,” its protagonist is a teenage girl, and its setting is an isolated part of the Ozarks.
“I hadn’t read Woodrell until I was working on my novel,” McHugh said. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this. It’s already been done.’ I thought I was washed up.”
Hardly. “The Weight of Blood” won both the International Thriller Writers and Silver Falchion awards in 2015 for best first novel. In 2014, The Star featured it as an FYI Book Club selection.
McHugh, who lived in the Ozarks as a child, moved to Columbia to attend graduate school and worked there for 10 years as a software developer before losing her job.
“It was devastating at the time,” she said. “But I never would have written a book if I hadn’t been fired.”
She had always wanted to write a novel set in the Ozarks.
“Some areas are so remote, you just know something horrible could happen there.”
Like McHugh, author Robert Dunn of Kansas City spent much of his childhood in the Ozarks and saw it as fertile ground for mayhem. He didn’t begin writing novels until 2009, some 30 years after graduating from Nixa High School, but his 12th book will be published soon.
After producing multiple horror books, some of which were set in the Ozarks, Dunn has generated two entries in a series about sheriff’s detective Katrina Williams, who investigates crimes in Taney County. “A Living Grave” (2016) and “A Particular Darkness” (2017) include such Ozarks Noir staples as murder, moonshiners and paddlefish.
“I grew up down just south of Springfield, and I really wanted to incorporate some of the feelings of the area in a book,” Dunn said. “I wanted to use the Ozarks as an extra character.
“Part of it is nostalgia for what is gone. Part of it is atmospheric, a place that is dark and brooding.”
Dark and brooding are common themes in other books with Ozark Noir touches, such as “Missouri Homegrown” (2017) by Jesse James Kennedy, “Poor Boy Road” (2016) and “Ares Road” (2017) by James L. Weaver and “Bred to the Bone: Deadly Secrets at Hunter’s Mill” (2012) and “The Ghost of Timmy Wahl: Eternal Secrets at Hunter’s Mill” (2017) by Lin Waterhouse.
In addition, Flynn’s first novel, “Sharp Objects” (2006, six years before “Gone Girl”) is very much Ozark Noir, even though it is set in the Bootheel. In it, a reporter returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Mo., to investigate the disappearance of one girl and the murder of another.
Unlike in Flynn’s novels and “The Weight of Blood,” readers will encounter real Missouri towns and settings in Dunn’s books. However, Dunn doesn’t base his characters on people he knows, but “on the way people really are there, based on my experiences.”
Not all such portrayals are flattering.
A common presence in Ozark Noir is the uneducated native who speaks ungrammatically and seems out of place in the modern world. In “The Weight of Blood,” those characters also partake in a variety of violent crimes.
“I’ve been accused of ruining Missouri’s reputation,” McHugh said. “But it’s a crime novel, and things like that really do happen.”
In fact, McHugh based a key element of her story on a crime in Lebanon, Mo., that she read about in a news article.
Still, not everybody approves of such dark portrayals.
“I was at a book club and a lady yelled at me for 20 minutes …,” McHugh said. “I don’t want to offend anyone. It’s my home, too.”
McHugh’s second novel, “Arrowood,” a finalist for the 2017 International Thriller Writers award for best hardcover novel, is set in Iowa. But she will return home with her third novel, which she expects to be available in about a year.
“It’s set in rural Missouri, kind of a farming area,” she said. “It has a similar kind of atmosphere and darkness to my first book.”
Dan Kelly is the author of “Soaring with Vultures,” a historical novel set in post-Civil War Missouri.
More of the Show-Me State
Two more major TV shows and a potentially big movie will keep the Ozarks and Missouri in the spotlight.
Five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams will star in an eight-episode version of Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” which is scheduled to premiere this summer on HBO.
Season 3 of HBO’s “True Detective” will feature Mahershala Ali, Oscar-winning star of “Moonlight,” as an Arkansas cop investigating “a macabre crime in the heart of the Ozarks,” according to the show’s official synopsis.
And, though not an Ozark Noir novel, “Stoner” (1965), by John Williams, is slated to be turned into a movie with Oscar winners Casey Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones and director Joe Wright (“Darkest Hour”). The book became a best-seller after being reissued in 2003 and 2006. Set mostly in Columbia, it tells the story of a poor farmer who goes off to the University of Missouri and embraces academia.