Saturday, July 3, 2010
Southern Discomfort: Winter’s Bone
One of the most striking things about the Sundance hit Winter’s Bone is that it’s as straightforward as it seems. Adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell and directed by Debra Granik, the film tells the story of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl wandering through rural Missouri in a desperate attempt to track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father so that he’ll see his day in court. In many movies, particularly independent movies, this quest would be nothing more than a front, a basic narrative device employed as a means to a more profound end. But not in Winter’s Bone. Here, Ree’s mission to find her father isn’t a metaphorical search for her soul or the meaning of life, it’s just her reality: a task she must perform in order to keep herself, her catatonic mother and her two siblings in the house that her father used as collateral for his release. None of this is to suggest that Ree doesn’t reveal herself or learn a thing or two over the course of her journey. Rather it’s to point out that Winter’s Bone is free from boldface/italicized demonstrations of meaning. Granik’s film is exactly what it appears to be: a gripping, gothic, Grimm fairy tale.
That Winter’s Bone is “only” that makes it unusual for the art house, where symbolism often trumps narrative cohesion, but it doesn’t cheapen the film. There’s nuance here, and emotional depth. But in the end this is a good old-fashioned yarn, an Alice in Fucked-Up Wonderland tale in which Ree’s moment-to-moment interactions are so compelling that her inevitable destination is an afterthought. That’s no small thing. Winter’s Bone is soaking wet with the dark, cold atmosphere of its setting – a place where men go by names like Thump and Teardrop and where the women are equally intimidating. It’s a place where nearly everyone seems to be related by blood but in which family is determined by one’s adherence to an understood moral code. Watching Granik’s film, we get the sense that there’s a lot of truth in this depiction of poverty, violence and crime. But even though the movie was shot on location in southern Missouri (one could scarcely imagine a suitable substitute), realism isn’t the film’s primary aim. When it comes down to it, Ree Dolly is Henry Hill and Winter’s Bone is Goodfellas of the Ozarks. It’s a glimpse of a somewhat unimaginable world that’s based in reality but not grounded in truth.
The film’s star is Jennifer Lawrence, who looks a bit like a young Renee Zellweger but who thankfully stops her Southern-fried depiction well short of Zellweger’s overcooked Oscar-winning atrocity from Cold Mountain. In fact, perhaps the most impressive thing about Lawrence’s performance is how spectacularly unspectacular she makes this 17-year-old girl who is trying to keep her family from being homeless and who is willing to walk into the lion’s den to do it – confronting a policeman, a bail bondsman and her significantly more dangerous relatives and neighbors. Ree is confident that some of her extended kin must know the whereabouts of her father, but she’s not naïve to the possibility that those whereabouts might be 6-feet under, and that those who know her father’s location might be the people who put him there. These are extraordinary circumstances, but Ree doesn’t come off as a particularly extraordinary individual. Lawrence is always one misstep away from letting her determined young woman transform into an outright heroic and superhuman one – the kind of character better played by the likes of Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Garner/Hilary Swank. Instead, her Ree remains grounded. She never becomes Lara Croft. She never becomes Clarice Starling. She’s simply a girl who doesn’t have the luxury of fear or caution.
No scene better reflects this than one in which Ree shows her siblings how to skin and gut a squirrel. When Ree’s little brother balks at the idea of gutting the animal with his bare hands, Ree gives him the bad news: “There’s a bunch a things you gotta get over being afraid of.” Clearly this is a lesson Ree learned long ago, and that’s what gives her risk-taking journey credibility. This isn’t the first time she’s unblinkingly faced danger or humiliation for the sake of her family. It won’t be the last. And while Winter’s Bone is certainly about a specific place and people, it’s Ree who makes the story universal: She is one of the too many people in this country who, by whatever unfortunate circumstances, are forced to take on far too much, far too soon. In this light, her triumphs are laced with tragedy. The film’s best scene might be the one in which Ree meets with an Army recruiter who quickly recognizes that Ree’s mission to enlist to generate some sorely needed income for her family is noble but impossible. Ree can’t battle for her family on the frontlines and protect their flank at the same time. Ree is so selfless, so matter-of-fact about her role as provider and caretaker, that she fails to recognize the valor of her day-to-day existence. That’s what makes her endearing.
If there’s any fault in the film’s presentation of Ree, both in the way the character is written and the way Lawrence plays her, it’s that in some scenes she comes off a little too polished, a little too poetic. In stray moments, Ree is a Shakespearean redneck rather than the real thing. But that slight misstep is offset by Granik’s decision to fill out the film’s cast with characters who have no polish whatsoever – obese people, haggard people, people who seem to have scowled all their lives, and for good reason. These characters are far from Hollywood, but what is of Hollywood is this picture’s grim, foreboding mood, which owes special credit to some smart cinematography by Michael McDonough and to an outstanding supporting performance by John Hawkes, whose Teardrop is a chilling yet soulful menace. Winter’s Bone is an art film flavored with pulp, a taut Ozarks odyssey with its own River Styx. Like Ree, it isn’t out to be special. It just is.