Thursday, July 22, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik)

In many ways, the Ozarks world of Winter’s Bone harbors a way of life that seems to have changed little since the Great Depression. Oh sure, the cars and clothes are newer, and the local underground industry has switched from moonshine to crystal meth. But the mentality feels mostly the same- fierce territoriality, a strained-at-best relationship to the Law, and tenuous blood ties that only hold up to the point where they stop being useful. It’s a pocket of America that feels like a distant planet compared to the contemporary suburban sprawl, to say nothing of the big city, and it’s the kind of place where those who hail from elsewhere thank the heavens that they weren’t born, and where those who were born there rarely manage to escape.

Under the circumstances, it’s sort of amazing that Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) turned out so well. The offspring of a largely absent, ne’er-do-well father and a mostly catatonic mother, 17-year-old Ree is shouldering the responsibility for keeping her family going. She has dropped out of school to raise her younger brother and sister, but she motivates them to do their homework and quizzes them on their math and spelling. She assembles the meals primarily from what’s on hand and what can be hunted in the nearby forest. Money being tight, she could go around asking for charity, but she lives by the wisdom, “never ask for what ought to be offered.” It would be easy for her to fall in with the meth cookers in order to earn a living, but like the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta before her, she won’t fall into the rut. And when she discovers that her family could get kicked out of their house after her dad has skipped bail, she’s not about to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

One of the wonders of Winter’s Bone, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is how much it reveals about both its heroine and its setting not through tiresome exposition but through action. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini don’t toss in so much as a throwaway line about Ree’s upbringing, but judging by her resourcefulness it’s clear that she had to figure most of life out for herself. In her hardscrabble way, Ree is the most heroic character I’ve seen at the movies all year, and Lawrence is a dynamo, less an up-and-comer angling for a career boost than a young performer with serious chops that were just waiting for be revealed. Lawrence isn’t playing a Hollywood hillbilly- Ree is a clever young woman whose circumstances have made her wise beyond her years, and she knows how to navigate a world that spits out weaker souls.

It’s a world that Granik portrays in such depth that Winter’s Bone never simply feels like a vehicle for its young star. The visual style of the film never falls into Southern Gothic clichés, but finely straddles the line between naturalism and noir. She then fills this world with a vivid gallery of supporting players, from the great John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, who reluctantly aids her on her quest, to Dale Dickey as Ree’s most intimidating obstacle, a local crime queen who has her fingers in lots of pies, all of them rotten. And throughout the film, Granik fills the frame with detail after vivid detail, from the crowds at the local cattle auction to the way a birthday party turns into a sing-along. It rang particularly true that the only option for young adults aside from crime is the military, which reels in many of its enlistees with the promise of money, travel, and the allure of potential heroism.

Winter’s Bone won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this past year. But while this award’s pedigree often suggests bland off-Hollywood fare that’s low on legitimate entertainment value (i.e. Quinceañera and Personal Velocity), Winter’s Bone is never less than riveting. A tense thriller, a study of an unforgettable character, and as lived-in a portrait of the South than any film I’ve seen since The Apostle, Granik’s film is a major achievement, and one that will, I hope, kick off long and fruitful careers for both its director and leading lady.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

1 comment:

jennybee said...

Excellent review of my favorite film so far this year. I highly recommend the novel, as well. It's a quick read, but even richer than the film. This fiercely insular pocket of America is only a few miles away from my home, and every moment rang true for me.

I'm glad you mention the entertainment value, as well. Too many reviews are emphasizing the bleakness, which I think is not only going to put people off of the film, but is a lazy and somewhat misleading description of what is really a fascinating character study of a tense and dangerous community.